When people hear the term “player’s coach,” there are often plenty of platitudes and assumptions someone might make about the coach and not actually think about what those words mean. In the case of Nature Coast Tech Assistant Baseball Coach Kip Fleming, it has served as an integral part of his life on and off the field. He began his coaching career that way 16 years ago and brought that mentality with him when he received a call from his former Head Coach Frank Vitale to join the staff at Nature Coast.
“I enjoy what I do,” Coach Fleming said. “I volunteer. My mornings start at 3:30 when I get up, and there’s super late nights when we have bus rides to Citrus or whatever, but the reason why I do it is for the kids. Yeah, I love baseball. It’s a big part of our life, but to watch these young boys grow up to be men, that’s the enjoyment that I get out of it – and to be able to mentor them. I’m more of, I would say, a life teacher than a baseball coach.”
This past season for the Sharks exemplifies that sentiment as the baseball coach accomplished a special feat in youth sports. This year, Coach Fleming turned the page and said goodbye to a core of players that he has mentored for the last 10 to 15 years. How was this possible? The six seniors who are now departing Nature Coast, which include Coach Fleming’s son Kannin, were part of a youth baseball team known as the Spring Hill Warhawks. With the older Fleming starting the squad ten years ago, he began coaching five of the six at that time while the other he had already been instructing since the player was three to five years old.
“This year was extra special just because I coached these kids from when they were seven, eight years old all the way and now they’re graduated,” Coach Fleming said. “So, it’s a little bittersweet this year. I’m no one special, but the reasons why I do it is the relationships with kids.”
The roster of seniors includes Fleming, Gavin McMurdo, Jaxen Gates, James Hurd IV, Brant Davis and Brenden Jones. While this year’s group was understandably important for him, Coach Fleming cherishes the opportunity to mentor every class and see them grow from freshmen to seniors. As a result of his instruction, former players who are now adults with families will call him to talk and tell him that they appreciate the advice he had given them.
According to Dixie League Director Jason Molka, the youth coach has never been a confrontational type of coach but rather kept the core of athletes around due to the respect he built with them and their parents. Umpires were included in this conversation as he returned them the respect they gave him. In an environment that can get intense like youth sports, being able to maintain such a rapport is commendable.
“It is a result of the respect and love that those kids have for him as well as the respect of their parents,” Molka said. “He earned the respect of his players, their parents, and other coaches by showing that he had no personal agendas and by always putting a very competitive team on the field. He was never the confrontational type of coach and seldom had issues with other coaches. Umpires respected him as well because he always returned the same respect toward them. I personally enjoyed coaching with him also.”
The Nature Coast coach has no agenda because he was once a college baseball player who experienced his own failures due to not taking the academic side seriously enough. For athletes that have higher aspirations such as collegiate or professional, he encourages them to take it seriously. Coach Fleming’s philosophy is about focusing on the kids’ futures and emphasizing to his players that baseball is a sport where you will fail often, but that it is just like life. Failure will happen, but you have to keep trying. With Nature Coast finishing the season with a 15-10-1 record and falling to North Marion in the regional quarterfinal, they were unable to reach the ultimate goal. Nonetheless, the coaching staff will come back next year and work on making that dream a reality with a bevy of new faces on the roster.
“Kip’s motivation was always to help make the kids better baseball players,” Molka said. “The kids loved playing for him and he loved coaching them… I have no doubt that he will continue to have friendships with them long after baseball.”