BRADENTON -- Growing up in Palmetto, not far from a set of railroad tracks, Dwayne Strong would substitute a broomstick for a bat and a rock for a ball and spend hours taking cuts.
Then he would hone his arm by throwing at signs. Or maybe he’d hone his baserunning during a game of pickle.
“We played different games that we competed in,” Strong said. “We didn’t realize we were getting better, but it was fun.”
Fast forward more than 30 years, and Strong is now Manatee’s baseball coach. Hired in 2007, it has taken him four years to lead the Hurricanes to Friday’s Class 5A state semifinals, the furthest the program has been since winning a state championship in 1963.
His players have no use for stones and shovels. It’s all aluminium and cowhide whenever Manatee works out at G.T. Bray park.
But Strong’s approach to practice doesn’t differ much from when he was a kid.
“Practice becomes so monotonous,” he said, “and if you don’t make it interesting, they’re not going to learn. That’s the 21st-centrury kid.”
A self-proclaimed baseball lifer, Strong prides himself on being an old-school coach. He doesn’t allow talking during first part of practice, when the Hurricanes run a lap, stretch and play catch.
And he doesn’t waste much time on trick plays, choosing to spend each day working on the fundamentals -- hitting, fielding and running.
“We have to do pretty much what you have to do to win,” said senior catcher Bryan Voelkl. “He’s not trying to trick us. We’re doing the simple things you’re supposed to do every game.”
But he also throws some twists into the mix. The average high school player takes 4.3 seconds to get from home to first. So during infield work, Manatee’s infielders are instructed to get the ball to first base in less time than that.
Strong sometimes splits the team up for a game of 21 Outs, where the team who records 21 outs first wins. And when the Hurricanes scrimmage, they do so at 7 p.m. under the lights at G.T. Bray.
“For me, the biggest thing is to replicate game-time atmosphere,” Strong said. “You try and make everything like a game.”
His tactics have paid off. Manatee has made the regional playoffs three straight years and plays Lakeland 5 p.m. Friday in a state semifinal at Port St. Lucie’s Digital Domain Park.
Prior to this season, Manatee hadn’t won a regional playoff game since 2002.
“It makes people try a lot harder when they have to work for something,” Voelkl said. “In the 21 Out game, the team that wins, they don’t have to run. So obviously, people are going to try a little bit harder.
“(Strong) preaches work ethic all the time, and people are finally starting to believe it.”
The 43-year-old Strong has been in baseball since he was 8, having played at Manatee and Manatee Community College (known now as State College of Florida) and serving as an assistant at Booker, Sarasota, MCC and Manatee. He has also been with Kirby Stewart’s Post 24 American Legion team for 22 years.
Wins and losses are nice, but Strong said the best part of baseball is the relationships it helps forge. Strong experienced such a bond himself Friday when a player he used to coach at Booker went to Pinellas Park High in Largo to watch Manatee win the Region 3 title.
“To me, there is no other sport that’s better,” Strong said. “It teaches, ‘How do I deal with adversity? How do I deal with someone in this locker room who I really don’t like, who’s my teammate?’ That may happen one day at a job.”
While teaching the tenets of the game are important to Strong, it’s baseball’s intangibles that he wants to pass down to his players.
Thus far, it seems to be working -- on and off the field.
“He’s not just a baseball coach. He teaches us how to be men,” said senior outfielder Erik Lindberg, “how to grow. And I think that’s special, too. He’s somebody we can look up to.”