The Brandon High School baseball program, once a Hillsborough County powerhouse, looks for a rebound season after a two-year rebuild.
The Eagles finished the shortened 2020 season on a roll, winning four of its last five games, bringing momentum into the off-season. It was a big step for the program, considering they won just five games the year before.
The team was in need of a rebuild after longtime Head Coach Matt Stallbaumer retired and several players transferred to other programs. The roster was demolished, with just 15 players and zero returning pitchers and catchers on the team. As a result, the team struggled.
John DiBenedetto was hired after the 2018 season to change the fortunes of a once proud baseball program and lead them back to the promised land. The former Academy at the Lakes head man turned that program around after just three seasons.
He brings great experience to the Eagles, having coached baseball for eight years, six as a head coach and two as an assistant. DiBenedetto also played for Newsome High School (2006-2008) and Blake High School (2009), and went on to play college baseball at Saint Anselm College for two seasons and Rivier University for his final two seasons.
The head coach believes that the tough 2019 season gave the young players experience, perspective and some development they badly needed. DiBenedetto bought into these young underclassmen when he became head coach, and, in return, they have bought into him and what he preaches—committing to accountability and hard work on the field and in the classroom. He said that working through the struggles together has made them grow up as a group.
“I’ve told my guys that the results may not pay off right away, but they will pay off in the long run if they buy into the process, and the baseball part will turn around on its own,” said DiBenedetto. “I always promise parents that if their kid does their job in the classroom and on the field, I guarantee that we will find a place to play for them in college.”
He has kept his promise thus far, with five seniors signing on to play college baseball, including Marcos Herrand (Coppin State University), Esteban Tavarez (Grambling State University), Tres Toledo (Salem University), Kendal Spencer (Lake-Sumter State College) and Daniel Santana (New England College).
“I love all my teammates and coaches,” said Herrand. “Everyone has a special role that they play, from the coaches to the players, and that just creates great chemistry. I believe that’s what makes this program great.”
In the shortened 2020 season, the team showed glimpses of great improvement. Spencer led Hillsborough County in hitting last season with a .609 batting average and he didn’t strike out once. Three players were named to the FACA All-State team, including Spencer, Santana and Herrand, and the team led the county with 43 stolen bases in just eight games. They will have 12 upperclassmen on the roster this season as well.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can go as a team,” said Santana. “We have many guys that can make an impact, and I truly feel we will be tough to beat. I believe we have one of the best pitching staffs in the county and we return seven hitters from a team that hit over .300 as a unit.”
The momentum from last season carried on to the fall season for Brandon, as they competed with some of the better teams in the county. The Eagles hope to compete for a district championship this season because they haven’t won one in five years.
“Going through the tough times has prepared us for this season,” said DiBenedetto. “Our motto has been ‘win every game.’ I don’t care how we do it, we just have to find a way to win baseball games.”