During their first Cook Inlet Conference baseball game this season, a game they were losing badly, the nine players on the Bartlett baseball team weren't exactly in a good frame of mind.
Players were down on themselves and bickering with one other, so first-year manager Matthew Pring and first-year coach Devin Morgan decided to have a talk with their new team.
They explained what it means to be a supportive teammate and how to play with a winning mind set, regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard.
"It was a total 180 on their attitude after that," Morgan said.
Bartlett finished with a 1-6 regular-season CIC record for the second straight season, but after an 8-5 loss to West in the regular-season finale players were laughing and smiling so much it was difficult to tell they had lost. The whole team was having a good time and perhaps setting a new tone for a baseball program attempting to make strides in a positive direction.
Senior Andrew Dickey, the only Bartlett pitcher to earn a win during the regular season, said last season's team was riddled with problems, starting with a lack of discipline applied from the former coach.
"If people didn't show up for practice, he'd let them play anyway," Dickey said.
Then again, there weren't very many regular practices to show up for, said senior catcher Chris Pasquale. It only took one or two this season before Pasquale remarked to his new coaches about how strange it was to practice so much.
"If you're not practicing, another team is and they're going to beat you," Pring said.
With only nine players on the team, none of them can afford to be a no-show, and having a coach who holds them accountable has made all the difference.
"We have a key figure and we welcome that," said senior Wynter Gross. "We're more close together as a team because of it."
Pring is 39 and retired from the Air Force and Morgan is 24 and serving in the Navy. The two met last summer while coaching Little League on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Both are new to coaching at the high school level and thoroughly enjoying it.
"I like this level of competition," Morgan said. "These games mean more to these kids."
Pring has always wanted to coach high school baseball, so when he learned there was a vacancy at Bartlett he applied immediately. After what he called a vigorous interview process ended in his favor, he suggested Morgan join him.
The two coaches brought a new level of commitment, but had to deal with myriad problems like academically ineligible players and little to no funding for the team.
"They kind of left us bankrupt in all aspects," Pring said.
Baseball is an outsourced sport, so the school district doesn't contribute any funds and all coaches are volunteers. Coaches, players and parents have to raise a combined $7,500 fee to play -- $2,500 for the high school season and $5,000 for the American Legion season. Fundraising this season went well enough for the Bartlett players to get new uniforms.
Now that a foundation is in place, Pring's plan is to build long-term stability, so Bartlett can move forward. Pring, who is from Philadelphia, said the short summers in Alaska present plenty of challenges.
"We practiced once outside prior to our first game," he said. "The cold makes a big difference. It even effects your arm."
A lot of Alaskan families like to spend time camping and fishing in the summer, making it difficult to maintain continuity when kids are leaving the team for extended time.
"It has to be a family buy-in, not just the kid," Pring said.
Managing a high school baseball team becomes close to a year-round commitment when recruiting new players is factored in. Six of Bartlett's nine players are seniors, so plenty of new players will be needed. Pring's goal is to recruit eight players from each class at Bartlett to fill out varsity and junior varsity squads.
"It doesn't matter if they've never played before, we can teach them to play," he said.
Pring also makes a point to visit Little League teams just to introduce himself and let kids know a high school program awaits. In general, Pring thinks there are less kids interested in baseball than in other sports like football, but that's nothing a winning program can't fix.
"When your team wins, it's easy to get players to come out," he said.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News