By JOHN LEMBOjlembo@bradenton.com
Remember that one-run loss three years ago in a district semifinal?
Or those two close losses in the regional quarterfinals?
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Or how about last year’s wrenching defeat at Venice, the one where the Manatee Hurricanes were a strike away from their first district baseball title in nearly a decade and then watched it slip away?
Dwayne Strong remembers them all. So do his players.
Perhaps that’s why the Hurricanes wake up this morning in complete control of their destiny -- win tonight at home against Naples Gulf Coast, and they clinch the No. 1 seed in the Class 5A-District 10 tournament.
The top seed doesn’t guarantee anything. In the Canes’ case, they’ll still need to win once to make the regional playoffs and twice to hoist a district championship trophy for the first time since 2002.
But Strong, now in his fourth year as Manatee’s head coach, said he believes the past has played a part in the Canes, who are 13-4 overall and 6-1 in the district, reaching this point.
“It’s a great thing, in terms of building character ... which I think has led us to a couple big wins this year,” said Strong, who graduated from Manatee in 1985.
His Hurricanes won a pair of one-run games during the Sarasota Baseball Classic. Last week, they rallied from a one-run deficit against district foe Punta Gorda Charlotte and won by three.
“A couple of years ago,” he said, “we wouldn’t have come back from that.”
Manatee sure had its chances in the past, losing a district semifinal to Bayshore in 2008 when the potential tying run was cut down at home plate with two outs in the seventh inning. The Canes reached the regional playoffs the following year and lost by two runs to Seminole Osceola in the quarterfinals.
Last season, perhaps, was the most galling -- squandering a one-run lead to Venice in the bottom of the seventh of the District 10 final, and then losing 3-2 in the quarterfinals to a Tampa King team that wound up reaching the Class 5A state final four.
“You’ve got to have some bumps along the way to figure it out,” Strong said Thursday while sitting inside the coaches’ office in G.T. Bray’s fieldhouse.
Located next to the home dugout, the fieldhouse has undergone a bit of a face-lift since Strong took over the program. Included is a washer and a dryer and a brand new floor, along with some couches and a flat-screen television where the players can study video of their at-bats.
Yet Strong’s hope is to rearrange more than just the furniture.
“You come in and you try to change a culture and you try to change an atmosphere, and you upset some people because they’re used to doing things a certain way,” he said. “It’s not been an easy road. It’s been a lot of sleepless nights.”
So earning a top seed, and ultimately a district championship, would make it all worth it.
“I think we have a lot more buy-in with our players,” said senior catcher Bryan Voelkl, a four-year starter. “More people are listening to what they’ve been taught, they believe in what they’ve been taught. I think that’s the biggest thing -- they actually believe what he teaches.”
Drive into the parking lot at G.T. Bray and the first thing you see is a sign proclaiming the park as the home of the Hurricanes. Then it lists their district championships.
Voelkl notices the sign hasn’t been touched since ’02.
“I would love it,” he said of the prospect of adding a 2011 up there. “Be a little going away present.”
Winning tonight won’t won’t accomplish it. But it will bring the Hurricanes a step closer toward doing so.
And more importantly, a step closer toward proving a disappointing past can help craft a satisfying future.
John Lembo, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2097.