One glance at Golden Gate High School’s 2006 varsity baseball roster tells the story of the season: This year is about building for the future.
Listed on the roster are four freshmen and three sophomores. There is only one senior on the team, first baseman Paul Johnson.
Last year, in the school’s inaugural season, five seniors led the team to a 20-7 record. This season, despite young players and lowered expectations, the Titans stand at 5-5, following the Mar. 15 win over South Fort Myers.
“We’ve got a great team with excellent work habits,” said head coach Bob Smith. “They lack experience. That’s what they need. They can only improve as the season goes on.”
On the mound facing South Ft. Myers, freshman Cody Matson didn’t look like a freshman. Throwing heat and recording numerous strikeouts, he looked like a page from last season’s book.
“That was our strength last year, our pitching,” said Smith. “But we lost most of the staff to graduation.”
In addition to Matson, freshman Kyle Walls helps to fill the pitching void. Michael Spano, the catcher, is also a freshman.
If his players lack experience, the same cannot be said for coach Smith. This is Smith’s 26th year as a head coach.
Smith began his career in New Jersey, where he coached varsity baseball for six years. Relocating to southwest Florida, Smith began an 18-year stretch at Barron Collier High School, where in 1997 he captured a state championship.
Following the title, health issues forced Smith to give up coaching. His diabetes worsened. He required multiple eye surgeries.
After several years, however, as his health improved, Smith began volunteering in the scorer’s booth. Soon he was back in the dugout coaching the Cougar’s JV team.
After accepting the head coach position at Golden Gate, Smith’s reputation as a top-notch teacher of the game influenced the decisions of would-be senior players.
According to the Collier County School Board, seniors zoned for the new school had the option of remaining at their current schools to finish high school.
Talented upperclassmen from schools such as Lely, Naples and Gulf Coast didn’t take this option. They wanted to play for Smith, if only for one season. They flocked to Golden Gate High.
After the season, two of these players – pitcher Keith Auckerman and outfielder Abel Rodriguez – received all-state honors by the Florida Sports Writers Association. Both players went on to play in college, joined by Matt Shoemaker, who signed with Florida Gulf Coast University. Brett Norris gained admission into the Air Force Academy.
This year, Paul Johnson signed a letter of intent with Eastern Michigan University. Listed at 6’7’’ and 280 lbs., Johnson will play football, not baseball.
Next on the schedule for Smith and the Titans is the Celtic Classic, a spring break tournament hosted by St. John Neumann High School. Games will be held at Neumann and Golden Gate throughout the week.
“We’re playing four games in four days,” said Smith. “With players out of town for the break, it’ll be tough.”
Nevertheless, Smith will take all the playing time he can find for his underclassmen.
“We’ll get the young players innings. We’ll improve as the season goes on. That’s our goal.”