They came, Temple built it

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 16, 2001

Sam Temple looks over Viking Field, where he has breathed new life into Warren Central baseball. He is 116-46 in his fifth season at WC. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[04/16/01] At one time, 6:30 in the morning seemed early to Sam Temple.

That was well before, at 25, he became head coach of what had been an average baseball program. That was well before he adopted 28 kids and hired Randy Broome as his assistant, then strapped the program to their backs and transformed it into the state’s best.

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The transformation started only five years ago. Yet, with a No. 1 ranking in The Clarion-Ledger and a spot in the USA Today poll for the second straight season, it seems so much longer ago.

But the coach with a bulldog’s scowl and a boxer’s chin deflects all praise for those accomplishments to his players, who, in turn, credit him.

He did, indeed, arrive just before local youth leagues experienced unparalleled success, a fact he is always quick to point out.

But talent alone isn’t what has distinguished WC.

Temple demands hard work hours and hours of it from all of his players.

But none of them have put in the time for as long as Temple has.

Passion is the fuel that keeps him going as he wakes up early and goes to bed late. That passion is what has turned WC around from a team that won just 10 games five years ago to a team that has won 20 or more for four straight seasons and is on pace to win 30 for the second time.

“We know when we come down here, we will be getting a great game,” Horn Lake coach Mike McCoy said after his team traveled three hours to play in a three-team showcase at Viking Field April 7. “These are the games that make us better.”

The Vikings used to do the traveling to get better, but no more. Now, they attract every team’s best pitcher, every team’s A’ game.

At the bottom of it all is Temple, who sips his first cup of sugar, with a hint of coffee. He watches SportsCenter and agonizes over the day’s pitching rotation.

“I just love this show,” Temple said after watching another baseball highlight. “I love watching Baseball Tonight late at night.”

What a distant thought tonight is. The overcast sky is just starting to show signs of waking up the world. No rain, though, which is a good thing when his pride and joy, Viking Field, must be kept pristine.

“The most important thing to me, besides my wife and big-ole bassett hound, is this team, these young men,” Temple said, his voice crackling and lip trembling. “I love them.”

It’s 14, 15, maybe 16 hours later, and he sits, tired and beaten emotionally to the point where a postgame meal is scratched because, “My emotions run so high and I want so much for (the team) that I get so worked up inside, I can’t eat.”

But, at least now he can go home.

Before the 10-minute drive, his body slumps in the office chair and his knees n with only 20 percent of the cartilage left after five operations n torment him.

He’s the only one left at the park, but he relishes this time for reflection on the game, or the season, or the next game but always baseball. He’s extremely proud of the team’s effort in beating Horn Lake handily and then taking down powerful Madison Central, 1-0.

It was just another long day in a season of long days.

7:20 a.m. n Sam Temple suffers his first loss of the day. As his White Chevrolet Z71 pulls into Viking Field, Broome has already mowed half the outfield.

“He won’t beat me here again,” Temple said only half in jest.

Temple’s infectious pursuit of winning at everything makes beating him and his team an even harder task. He hates to lose. He hates for his team to lose. It is unacceptable.

Asked if he’d ever met anyone as competitive as the head coach, shortstop Joey Lieberman said, “Not even close.”

On long bus rides, the team plays “the name game.” One person will give a name of someone involved in baseball. The next person picks another whose first name starts with the same letter as the last person’s surname. Willie Mays, for example, leads to Mel Allen, which leads to Abner Doubleday, etc.

In the tunnel under downtown Mobile during a spring break trip in 2000, a game started. Three players bowed out two hours later at a truck stop in Hattiesburg.

Temple was left with a reporter who knew the coach’s hatred for losing. No game had carried on this long, and it was far from over.

“I know how much you hate to lose,” the reporter said. “I would rather jump out of this bus than give up.”

Eighty miles later, on the Interstate 20 on-ramp in Jackson, brains drained, Temple and the reporter called a truce. No winner. No loser. But what a battle.

Nothing, though, compared to the storied practices that have been as long as five hours.

“He’s a college coach in charge of a high school team,” senior catcher Kevin Coker said. “He’s not nice between the fences. He’s mean. But the fact that he has made so many sacrifices for us, it makes us love him.”

Asked if the team would run through a brick wall for Temple, Coker smiles and says, “We wouldn’t have to. He would have already knocked the wall down for us.”

Coker and his teammates start filtering in about 9:15. They quickly make finishing touches on the field, then prepare for batting practice.

Once “inside the fence,” all smiles are replaced with a workmanlike routine run with the precision of a military drill. All the while, the general barks out instructions, criticism and even some praise.

“When I get inside the fence, it’s all business,” Temple said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that this is our job; this is how I make my livelihood.”

Sensing Temple’s “inside the fence” presence, one of the players quickly tells second baseman Kyle Simmons to tuck in his shirt a major rules violation. That would exude individualism, which is frowned upon on a team that stresses the team concept.

“Let’s have a day,” Temple said as he gets ready to throw batting practice after almost healing from a broken hand, which got in the way of a line drive at an earlier practice.

One long round for each player and, amazingly, it’s just over two hours from game time. A 40-minute lunch, then they belong to him again.

“We all love this game,” said Broome, who was an assistant for one year at Vicksburg High before joining Temple. “These are the days you hope for. These are what you play for.”