DUNEDIN — Tom Hilbert poured himself into Dunedin High School baseball.
A four-year varsity letterman as a player in the 1980s, Hilbert returned to the program in 1998 only to produce 16 of the finest years of any head coach in Pinellas County history.
Wednesday night at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, one of Pinellas County baseball's most familiar faces and staunchest advocates was recognized and thanked for his two decades of service.
Hilbert had his No. 13 jersey retired by Dunedin High during a ceremony in front of home plate and prior to the Falcons' rivalry game against Seminole. He was joined on the field by about 30 former players and assistant coaches.
“I love Dunedin High School and everything about this baseball program,” Hilbert said to an appreciative stadium crowd.
“I can still remember 29 years ago making the team as a freshman. In some form or another – whether it was myself as a player here or coaching – I can basically name every single game, every single score, every single player, and every single story from Dunedin baseball.”
Hilbert led Dixie Hollins for four years before taking the job at his alma mater in 1998. He stepped down from Dunedin following last season to accept an assistant position with the St. Petersburg College baseball program. The current head coach at SPC is Hilbert's former player and assistant coach at Dunedin, Ryan Beckman.
Joining Hilbert in Wednesday's celebration were his father, Tom Hilbert Sr., and uncle Don Hilbert – both assistant coaches at Dunedin. According to the Dunedin baseball website, the Hilbert trio coached in over 1,900 games together and never had a losing season.
Hilbert Sr. and Don Hilbert were both inducted into the Dunedin Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and the retiring of Hilbert II's No. 13 jersey joins it with former coach Greg Nichols' No. 20.
Hilbert II's 16-year tenure at Dunedin included 13 trips to the postseason, all as the district champion. His run reached its apex in 2008 when the Falcons beat Stuart South Fork 3-2 in 10 innings to earn the Class 5A state championship. It was Dunedin's second state crown and first since 1964.
Prior to being introduced by Dunedin's new coach Ron Sexton, a statement from Countryside coach Kemo O'Sullivan was read. O'Sullivan coached under Hilbert II before taking over the Cougars.
“You taught me the dedication it takes to run a successful program and I would not be a head coach at Countryside without you,” the statement read. “Our team is significant in Pinellas County because of you.
“No Dunedin player or coach will ever wear No. 13 again and that is exactly how it should be.”
Before giving way to the Falcons' fourth game of the post-Hilbert era, their former head coach made a point to acknowledge that no more-appropriate opponent could have been selected for the night.
“I don't think you can ask for a better matchup over the last 50 years of public high school baseball in Pinellas County than these two teams: Seminole and Dunedin,” Hilbert II said. “These are the two programs that represent Pinellas County baseball. They are the two that the others look at, the others want to be like and the others want to beat more than anything.”
As if scripted for the occasion, the rivals responded with a dramatic, extra-inning ballgame that saw Dunedin string together five runs in the bottom of the eighth and win 7-6.