Seacrest players gather in the pitcher's circle during a 6-1 home loss against Evangelical Christian on April 19. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Sure, we don’t know how this will all play out, but it’s clear John Kruk and Jaclyn Traina have a long-term plan: Transform the Seacrest Country Day School softball program into a local winner, if not a powerhouse.
Respectively, the retired Philadelphia Phillies icon and three-time all-star and the local girl who made good (you know, state champion at Naples High, national champion at Alabama, Team USA member, professional softball player in the U.S. and Japan) are about to complete their first season together as co-head coaches of the Stingrays. Traina was hired last summer to join Kruk in the dugout of the brand-new field that he delivered to the school in his first year on the job.
Seacrest visits Academy at the Lakes on Thursday in a Class 2A regional semifinal. It’s a rematch of last year’s playoff pairing, which saw Academy at the Lakes have its way with a young and almost entirely inexperienced Stingrays squad in a 15-0 win.
This year, the Stingrays are still young — only one senior and one junior are on the roster — but the inexperience level … that’s less of a concern.
“We’re getting there,” said Kruk, whose team amassed a 9-8 record entering regionals. “We’re young. We’ve got a seventh-grader catching, a seventh-grader at second, an eighth-grader at short, ninth-graders in the outfield. We’re … just young. But it’s fun because you can see potential.
“It’s nice because the coaches from Sarasota said, ‘We told our girls, these (Seacrest) kids are coming. Don’t think this is going to be a cakewalk anymore with these kids because they’re getting better.’”
Said Traina: “Athletic-wise (and) fundamentally-wise, we have gotten a lot better. We have changed things up for them. We’ve made them uncomfortable in certain situations, and I think that they’re becoming more confident, so they’re thriving in the moments that they need to thrive in.”
Kruk is hopeful that within a couple years, the Stingrays will be a team that can compete with the bigger public school programs in Collier County. And the timing may be just right, with traditional giants Naples — likely much to Traina’s chagrin — and Barron Collier getting further and further removed from their glory days. (Although, Barron looks like it may be poised to make a postseason run this year.)
To get to that point, though, Kruk and Traina need more gritty, hard-nosed players.
“That’s what we’re trying to change,” Kruk said, “when the girls step on the field, they want to beat someone. They just don’t want to play anymore; they want to compete and beat people. We have a couple that get angry when we lose. Those are the kids that we’re going to build with.”
Seacrest’s biggest problem this season has been injuries. Not once, Kruk said, was he able to put his projected lineup on the field.
The biggest injury? Haelee Angelico’s torn quadriceps. Just a freshman (actually, that’s a grizzled veteran on this roster dominated by seventh- and eighth-graders), Angelico is the team’s cleanup hitter and one of its two pitchers.
Her injury has had a domino effect on the Stingrays’ lineup. It’s forced their other pitcher, sophomore Annabelle Melo, who catches when she’s not pitching, to start every game in the circle. “She’s got no choice but to go seven (innings),” Kruk says, laughing incredulously. “We don’t have (anyone else).”
To find a full-time catcher, Kruk and Traina held a competition of sorts among several players. Although, it didn’t sound like a fun one as Traina revved up that championship arm of hers and fired pitches into the candidates — many of them in the dirt, Kruk said. In the end, it was Kruk’s seventh-grade daughter, Keira, who became the catcher. She moved there from her spot at first base.
Speaking of first base, that’s where shortstop Ryleigh Howell found herself for the first several games. The reason? Kruk said she grew “too fast” since the previous season (he has her somewhere at 5-8 or 5-9), and her shoulder muscle needed extra time to develop. “She couldn’t throw,” Kruk said.
Kruk has been particularly pleased with Melo’s growth this season.
“I think Annabelle has taken big steps forward as far as being a leader … and the kids all look up to her because she’s our best player,” said Kruk, who added that Melo played “unbelievable” during her time as catcher.
Kruk believes an extended break from the game has helped Melo come back a better player. He said she chose not to play softball last summer, then played basketball for Seacrest in the winter.
“I think it rejuvenated her,” Kruk said. “She looks like she’s happier this year. Of course, with my daughter catching her, those two are like inseparable. They’re just goofy, man, those two.”
Melo was thrilled when she heard the news that Traina would be joining the Stingrays’ coaching staff. She said she grew up watching Traina pitch for Naples High.
“I loved her,” said Melo, who revealed that she once received pitching tips from Traina the summer before Traina was hired at Seacrest.
As to what effect Traina has had on her this season, Melo said they’ve been working on her mechanics — staying more upright in her motion and delivery.
“I kind of like to lean over sometimes, and that makes me pitch a little wild,” Melo said. “She definitely tries to keep me up. And mentally … focus and not get all crazy — really dial in and get a rhythm.”
Asked for his take on the effect Traina has had on Melo and, before her injury, Angelico, Kruk said simply, “Confidence.”
“Sometimes it can be a little intimidating,” he added, “especially when we play really, really good schools. But I think she’s given them the confidence.
“Last year, if they threw one changeup that wasn’t good, they just abandoned it. And she keeps calling them and making sure that they’re calling (them).”
Traina had the luxury of playing for a Florida high school Hall of Fame coach in Robert Iamurri, who left Naples High a few years ago to start up and build a successful junior college program at Florida South Western in North Fort Myers.
Iamurri’s influence on how Traina approaches coaching is evident. The long, flowing swings that Seacrest players used last year have largely been replaced with a more compact slap of the ball — a hallmark of those Iamurri-led Naples teams.
“We really focus on just putting the ball in play,” said Traina, a power hitter for Naples who’s offensive game was a bit overshadowed by her brilliance in the pitcher’s circle. “That’s our big thing this year: putting the ball in play, making the defense work, make them throw the ball around.
“(Slapping) is completely new to every single one of them this year, and they all do it now, and they’re all super-confident in it.”
Traina was asked to compare the coaching styles of Kruk and Iamurri.
“When you’re out here, you’re going to work hard,” Traina said. “That’s something that has been pushed through when I was with Robert (and) when I was with Kruk now. If you’re going to come out here, you’re going to give 100 percent or you can just go home. That’s the biggest similarity — (Kruk) wants the best out of you, and so did (Iamurri). They really push the athlete to be the best version of themselves.
“I mean, we instill a lot of the same stuff — being here on time, pushing the people that are to the left and right of you. So that’s the same stuff.”
In what could be a game-changer for Seacrest softball, Kruk and Traina are starting a travel program for the summer and fall. Tryouts were scheduled to be held last week. Among the girls who showed up were some players from Palmetto Ridge High School and Fort Myers.
Kruk stressed this will be more of a low-key travel team — perhaps three road trips in the summer and four or five in the fall, he said.
“We wanted to do something just to keep kids interested,” Kruk said. “I don’t know if there’s many teams in this area. I know (youth softball) in Naples is struggling with numbers. We wanted to just do something to get kids playing more … but not a lot. We’re not hardcore. It’s not an every weekend (thing), traveling to four different states. We’re not doing that.”
And make no mistake, Traina’s arrival had a lot to do with the formation of the travel team.
“It’s just something we talked about doing last year,” Kruk said, “and then when Jackie came here, we said, ‘You know what, we gotta do it.’ And she wants to do it. She’s excited about it.”
Traina believes the camaraderie that players develop on travel teams is carried with them into the high school season.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” she said. “We have a base of girls that want to compete at that level. We just want to grow. We’re starting small right now, but we want to keep adding.”
Plus, “they’re only going to get better if they see better competition,” Traina said.
Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at email@example.com.