LARGO — When the 2020 high school baseball season was cut short after a handful of games due to the coronavirus, Largo High head coach Taylor Layner’s three-year plan to turn the Packers into a district powerhouse suffered a temporary setback.
“This is technically the third year but last year was taken away, so I say we’re at 2½ years, in a way,” Layner said recently.
Like many coaches, educators and community leaders, Layner chose to move forward and focus on the lessons that could be learned from the crisis rather than lament what was lost, and he believes the 2021 Packers have used the lost season to refocus their energy and their priorities on and off the field.
“The focus in practice this year is just different,” Layner said before a home game against River Ridge on Feb. 26. “They’re still gonna be kids, but it’s just had a different feeling, in a good way. Last year was hard for them, with everything shutting down, because the world changed on them. But if there’s anything good to come from what we’ve been through it’s you just don’t know when this game is going to be taken away from you, so why hold anything back? So, it has helped, in a way, especially with the motivation for them and the things we want to do as a program.”
Layner, who after a standout pitching career at Osceola High went on to play collegiately at Webber International University, said the team having to deal with Austin Torres not being able to complete his senior season last spring had a major impact on this year’s squad.
“It was so upsetting that Austin didn’t get to finish out his senior year, especially for him, but we have 10 seniors this year who experienced that as well,” he said. “This year we have a big group of seniors and a good group of freshmen, too, so if there’s any good to be taken away from last year it’s that it made our juniors that are now seniors mature and take our freshmen under their wing and show them the way that things are supposed to be and how the program has changed the last three years.”
Indeed, the main focus of Layner’s three-year plan is to change the culture within the Largo High program, one that has enjoyed just one winning season and playoff appearance in the past two-plus decades, and he believes they have the right combination of veteran leadership and talented underclassmen to do just that.
“We have a lot of players who have been here and have been really successful at a high level who are now seniors, and we have a lot of players who are going to push the older guys, too,” he said. “So, I feel pretty good about where we’re going to be at the end of the season. We have guys that just want to work, and that’s big when you’re trying to build a program.”
Thanks to a new statewide format that has the district finalist and runner up moving on to regionals, Largo’s road to the playoffs could be a tough one, as they must play district opponents Bloomingdale, East Bay, St. Pete and Pinellas Park, plus contests against area powers Jesuit, Dunedin and River Ridge.
But Layner firmly believes in the old adage “to be the best you have to play the best,” and he thinks the 2021 Packers squad, which currently sits at 4-2, has what it takes to be special this season.
“If we play clean baseball and play up to our abilities we’re going to be in a really, really good spot when it comes to districts,” Layner said. “I know Largo hasn’t won the district since 1997 but I have confidence in my players and when they fully gain the confidence in their abilities and buy in, that’s when you get a really special team. And I think this year’s going to be really special.”