All across the country, at high schools in congested cities and small, rural towns alike, there are high school baseball coaches who this month and into the next couple of months will be starting their third, fourth or fifth decades of service.
One such “old school” skipper can be found at Fuquay-Varina (N.C.) High School, a large public school whose baseball team is coming off a runner-up finish at last year’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) Class 4A state tournament. The Bengals finished the season 27-6 after dropping two of three games to South Mecklenburg in the final championship series.
Milton Senter has already started what will be his 38th season as the head coach at FVHS, and he couldn’t feel more on top of his game. He’ll celebrate his 61st birthday in May and remains very much in sync with his young players, especially when it comes to all things baseball. He even feels like he’s been able to keep pace in the ever-changing world of technological advances that high school kids these days embrace, not a small feat for an aging -- but young at heart -- Baby Boomer.
“The kids are different but yet, quite honestly, they’re very much the same as kids used to be,” Senter said during a recent telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “If I really thought about it, I would say probably that I have adapted a lot more than I thought I had. I didn’t think I knew much about technology until I get around people in my age bracket who are not compelled to learn about it like I am being at (a high) school. I know a lot more than I thought I knew.”
There are some things he misses, however. Like a good, face-to-face conversation with one of his students or players.
“Kids nowadays, they can text pretty well and they know the technology, but the problem they have is being able to vocally communicate,” Senter said with a hint of a chuckle. “The older people like myself, that’s the thing we do better; I do the other stuff because I have to.”
Nothing tops experience and there is even more of it in the Bengals’ dugout. Tom Hayes has been Senter’s top assistant and pitching coach since 1997 and together they won an NCHSAA state championship in 2002 following a runner-up finish in 2000.
“He’s a lot nicer man than I am. I mean, shoot, he’s been teaching Sunday school longer than he’s been teaching high school,” Hayes told the Raleigh News & Observer before last spring’s state championship series. “If you asked the principal who the number-one teacher in the high school was over the last 20 years, (Senter) would probably be the one. He’s got an impeccable reputation.”
LIKE MUCH OF THE REST OF THE EASTERN SEABOARD – or on Perfect Game’s geographical map, the Mid-Atlantic Region – the coaching staff and players at Fuquay-Varina High School have had to deal with some pretty uncomfortable weather the last two months.
“A lot of cold, a lot of snow, real wet; it’s been difficult,” Senter told PG. “Our season starts Friday (Feb. 28) and we actually got a scrimmage in (Monday) but we had two others postponed with wet grounds. At least we’ve been able to get out on the field in a game situation, which is what you really hope for. We were able to get outside about five days in January and February between the rain and the cold.”
There are a lot of teams in many other PG regions that will have little sympathy for FBHS’s weather headaches, and quite frankly, Senter is not looking for any. He’s eager to get the season started to see if the Bengals can make a second consecutive run into Class 4A (big-school) championship series.
They graduated the services of all-conference (FVHS competes in the NCHSAA Tri-9 Conference) outfielder Garrett Suggs, now at North Carolina State, and second baseman Lucas Scott. Several other 2013 starters are gone, including the entire outfield. Suggs was the Tri-9 Conference player of the year and Senter was named the league’s coach of the year.
“Quite honestly, we had more good players last year than we have this year,” Senter said. “We have a lot of question marks, but we have three or four really good players. We expect to be competitive and every year our goal is to be right there. Potentially, as they get some experience in the outfield, particularly, we’ll be all right.”
The Bengals open play ranked No. 14 in the Perfect Game Preseason National High School Top 50 rankings, the highest ranking of any Mid-Atlantic Region team. There is a lot of talent in their dugout, starting with senior right-handers Brett Daniels and Jordan Bissette, and senior shortstop DJ Burt.
Daniels and Burt were both all-Tri-9 Conference performers in 2013 and are ranked the Nos. 6 and 8 prospects, respectively, in the North Carolina class of 2014. Both played on the EvoShield Canes squad that won the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October.
Daniels has signed with North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Burt with Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., and Bissette (No. 57, North Carolina) with North Carolina State. Just having Daniels and Bissette available to march out there every five days or so is reason for Senter to smile. “That’s always a good start when you’ve got two pitchers like that,” he said.
FUQUAY-VARINA IS ABOUT A 30-MINUTE DRIVE SOUTH OUT OF RALEIGH, located in rapidly growing Wake County. The cities of Fuquay Springs and Varina merged in 1963 to form the hyphenated town, which grew from a population of just about 7,900 folks in 2000 to more than 18,600 in 2012.
The present-day FVHS campus opened in 1975 although the first high school was established in 1925; the school currently has an enrollment of about 2,000 students. Holly Springs High School, with roughly 2,000 students, is about a six minute drive down the road from FVHS, and Middle Creek High School, with about 1,800 kids, is 10 minutes the other direction.
Those two schools, which opened in 2007 and 2002, respectively, reached the NCHSAA Class 4A championship series in 2011 and 2012, leading to Fuquay-Varina’s appearance in 2013. They also join FVHS in the Tri-9 Conference, along with Apex HS, Cary HS, Athens Drive HS, Green Hope HS, Lee Senior HS and Panther Creek HS. Senter counts every one of those eight schools as an arch-rival.
“It’s very competitive and obviously the kids live real close by; they see each other all the time,” he said. “Our league is really, really good and we don’t have to travel more than 14 or 15 miles to play anybody in our league. It’s really, really tight geographically and there are a lot of good players here. It’s very competitive and we have to work really, really hard – everybody does – just to be able to be competitive.”
The presence of Cary, N.C., adds to the area’s baseball allure. Cary is the home of the USA Baseball National Training Complex, which annually hosts the Tournament of Stars as well as the National High School Invitational Tournament.
“We live in an area here where baseball is just a pretty big deal,” Senter said. “The fact that we have a good league, I think it pushes everybody to get better and we all benefit from it, even though it’s a grind. It will kill you, this league will, and the Charlotte league is the same way.”
Senter, who has won more than 550 games at FVHS, has noticed an improvement in the players’ skill level throughout his 37 years on the job. He attributes that to the additional opportunities today’s prospects are presented with, like summer travel ball and year-around instruction. “For the ones that can play (at a high level), I think they do probably end up being better if they don’t hurt themselves by overdoing it,” he said.
A LOT HAS CHANGED ON THE NORTH CAROLINA HIGH SCHOOL high school baseball landscape in the last 37 years, just as it has on the national landscape. One thing Senter has noticed is the trend toward specialization, something he doesn’t necessarily endorse.
He recalled the days when he coached football in the fall and those same athletes would simply change their shoes and play basketball for him in the winter; another change of shoes led to any number of spring sports, including baseball. These days, Senter said, only four or five of his baseball players on average also takes part in another sport.
“Most of them are committed (to one sport), and whether that’s good or bad I’m not a big proponent of it,” he said. “I like kids that play multiple sports and I particularly like kids that play football – I think it makes them more mentally tough, and it’s a real team game and they learn real good team concepts.”
But the biggest change of all, at least in the fast-growing community of Fuquay-Varina, is the size of the high school. Senter said when he first came to the school in the late 1970s the enrollment was about 600, a number that has since tripled.
Its NCHSAA classification has gone from 2A to 4A and duties also changed. “I went from coaching three sports and being the athletic director for a little while to where now I’m a part-time teacher and I teach two classes a day and coach baseball. It’s very enjoyable,” he said.
The Fuquay-Varina Bengals open their 38th season under their “old school” skipper Milton Senter on Feb. 28. The other prominent high school programs in the NCHSAA Tri-9 Conference as well as those spread out over the six-state (and District of Columbia) PG Mid-Atlantic Region should stand ready. Coach Senter has another group he feels like he can communicate with and lead to another NCHSAA Class 4A state championship series.
“If I ever thought I was losing (the ability to relate to younger people) I would probably get out,” he said. “I’ve got some pretty high standards in regard to when I would say it’s time to quit. As long as … I feel like I’m providing at least as good of an opportunity for them as some younger guy would, I’ll probably still hang around. That’s kind of the measuring stick for me – am I having fun, do I still enjoy it, and do I still think I’m productive and am I still getting some good out of the players.”
“I think you’re either in the present and looking into the future or you’re looking back; I’m not ready to start looking back,” Senter concluded. “There’s plenty of time for that – or maybe there isn’t, I don’t know, we don’t have any promises – but I would rather be looking forward.”