LAKELAND, Fla. - Matt Diaz was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1999. The then-Devil Ray joined a draft class including Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Doug Waechter, and Seth McClung. The outfielder from Florida State went on to play 11 years in the bigs; his best years came with the Atlanta Braves.
Turns out the former player is a pretty darn good head coach. The Lakeland Christian School Vikings are 25-1, nationally ranked, and in the 3A state tournament.
Diaz is in his second season as head coach. The Vikings won the state crown in 2019 with Blane Fox as head coach.
Matt Diaz has a keen sense of humor. He jokes with his players as FOX 13 records that he is going to "fake coach."
Lakeland Christian coach Matt Diaz
Diaz also has a strong sense of purpose.
"Getting to coach at Lakeland Christian School is a huge bonus for me as a Christian," Diaz says. "I get to openly share my faith with these kids, we get to share our struggles."
Diaz shares the coaching duties with pitching coach Michael Byrd, who played collegiately at Vanderbilt before a brief stint in the minors. Together, Diaz and Byrd impart lessons that go beyond the diamond.
"Definitely. More of a learning process of the game." says senior pitcher Sawyer Toney. "More than just baseball. It's been making us all better men off the field. More of a mentorship."
Senior Ty Evans says he will appreciate his time at Lakeland Christian well after his playing days are through.
"You don't ever know if you're ever going to get a team like this again," Evans says. "It's a brotherhood here. We all play really well together. It's a great group of guys."
The coaching staff is also helping prepare players for the academic rigors of playing college ball. Pitching coach Byrd experienced that competitive curriculum first-hand at Vandy.
"If you don't have good grades when those opportunities pop up you can't take advantage of them," Byrd says. "I was really fortunate that my parents instilled upon me at a very young age that hey, absolutely grades have to come first."
The opportunity to win a second state title in three years is a welcome challenge and a challenge just to advance from the round of 32.
Calvary Christian is next up for the Vikings, and the Clearwater school already has two state titles.
Lakeland Christian looks to build on the success thus far; an offense that puts up nearly 10 runs per game and the pitching and defense that has limited opponents to one run per game.
"We got our pitchers, they do what they've got to do," says senior Jake Fox. "Our guys at the plate, we battle, have good at-bats. We all have our role on the team. We don't try to do something or be somebody that we're not."