Players come and go faster than a runaway freight train and the school even changed its name. But there remains one constant with the baseball program over at 26th Street West.
His name is Tim Hill Sr. and he is the reason players come to his program whether it’s called State College of Florida or the former Manatee Community College.
For those gifted in the art of swinging a bat or throwing a baseball, Tim Hill is the only name that matters. They believe he can put them on a magic carpet and take them to their dreams.
No one has done it better in Florida junior college baseball history. He won his sixth state championship Monday and will be going to his fifth Junior College World Series.
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After 29 years as the program’s head coach, Hill has become an institution with 15 straight state tournament appearances and enough trophies to open up his own Fort Knox.
What the average fan doesn’t see is the pipeline of connections Hill has built over the years, which has enabled his program to maintain a high level of success.
In Manatee and Sarasota Counties, baseball players who desire to go the Juco route are judged by whether Hill wants you. The ones with big league potential go to SCF, the others find another venue.
So while most college coaches are fighting a recruiting battle every year, Hills often finds himself deciding on whom to turn away.
He is the reason pro baseball scouts recommend his program to kids they might want to draft in a couple of years, but aren’t quite ready. He is the reason coaches at four year schools are more than happy to recommend SCF for their players, who need more seasoning.
This might have been Hill’s best coaching job and showed his ability to adapt, which is what junior college coaching is all about with its high turnover rate of players.
His ’09 team set a school record with a .350 team batting average and hit 78 homers. This squad hit .305 with 29 homers. It has a standout pitcher in Alex Burgos and Hill fortified his fox hole with a bunch of guys, who wouldn’t abandon him or anyone else on the mound.
“The strength of this team was pitching and defense and the ability to manufacture runs. We emphasized making contact. Fortunately, these guys responded, and it paid dividends,” he says.
Despite his success, Hill has had his share of broken hearts, but feels more for his players than himself.
The Juco State Tournament is like playing Russian Roulette, fall into the loser’s bracket early and teams feel as if they have to circumnavigate the globe to get back into contention.
His 2005 team was ranked first in the country for a good part of the year and had local stars Larry Cobb and Ryan Kennedy, but lost two straight in the state tournament. It was arguably the biggest disappointment in his 29 years there. Last year’s team went two and out despite its gaudy offensive stats.
“You want it so bad for the kids,” Hill says. “I get a chance to win it every year, but these kids are coming in for only one or two years. That ’05 club just made a lot of defensive mistakes in the two state tournament games.”
Things have to fall right to win this tournament. One of the keys to this season was getting three transfers from UCF. Another was finally getting Austin Chubb back to health.
The catcher has been hurt so much his medical charts would make for a good pre-med course, and he might be the only catcher in America who had Tommy John Surgery.
Hill sells character, enthusiasm and fun. They are all tied together.
“Our entire staff has passion for the game,” Hill says. “We do background checks on the kids we bring in from Division I schools. We want to make sure a transfer is not a discipline issue and pass on a lot of talent. The three guys from UCF (Anthony Figliolia, Austin Smith, B.J. Zimmerman) were an integral part of our success. They came here because they needed more playing time.”
Hill wants to win as much as the next guy, but keeps things in perspective.
“When you get eliminated, you think what you could have done differently as a coach, but after awhile life goes on,” Hill says. “You realize it’s a game. You have to get back to reality and understand it’s a fun thing to do and get ready for next year.”
Hill tells everyone no one is bigger than the program, whether he is a coach or player. That’s the one thing he might get wrong. There is one person bigger and he sees him every morning when he looks in the mirror.