Spartans ‘oh, so close!’ to baseball national title

By Randy Lefko Sports Editor
Posted 4/13/22

ORANGE PARK - St. Johns Country Day School baseball hurled its way to an unprecendent national title, but fell by way of a two-out, bases-loaded, two strikes on batter Jordan Taylor attempted to home …

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Spartans ‘oh, so close!’ to baseball national title

Posted

ORANGE PARK - St. Johns Country Day School baseball hurled its way to an unprecendent national title, but fell by way of a two-out, bases-loaded, two strikes on batter Jordan Taylor attempted to home plate that ultimately failed as the Spartans lost a 5-3 decision at the National High School Invitational baseball tournament in North Carolina.

“It was just an unlucky bounce,” said St. Johns baseball coach Tom Lucas. “A hundred times that run scores but the ball hit the backstop and returned to the plate to get our runner out. That’s baseball.”

For Taylor and for teammate Brad Hodges, the two power hitters in the Spartans lineup, the focus of the season’s batting array has been to put the ball in play. Both were named First Team All Tournament selections.

“Sure I would have liked to ding one and win it in one shot, but I was staying smart and waiting for my pitch,” said Taylor.

For Hodges, who was at bat prior to Taylor with two base runners, Stoneman Douglas ace pitcher Chris Arroyo, headed to the University of Florida with his 90 MPH plus fastball, walked Hodges in five pitches.

“After a good second game (4 hits; 1HR, 4 at bats, 2RBIS in 12-2 win over Don Bosco of New Jersey), the pitches were not coming to me near the strike zone,” said Hodges. “We knew that would occur, but then Jordan was next and they have to kind of pick their poison.”

For the Spartans though, the seemingly lone small school represented in the power lineup of nationwide schools that the St. Johns school population of near 250 students got dwarfed.

“We are pretty well known at the state level and locally, but all the schools in this tournament are huge and nationally ranked,” said Lucas, now 13-2. “We are not even in top 25 in the polls and we used that David v. Goliath thinking to play our games.”

St. Johns was pitted against Stoneman Douglas High out of south Florida, who won their first-ever NHSI title with the victory. Stoneman Douglas’ Chris Arroyo was named Most Valuable Player.

Note: The two Florida teams in the final were the first time both finalists were from Florida with California getting teams in the final for the past nine years. Florida last won in 2014 with The First Academy of Orlando. Stoneman Douglas beat three-time defending champion Orange Lutheran 11-0 in the semifinals to advance. Orange Lutheran was 17-3.

In the championship game, Stoneman Douglas struck first with a three-run first inning as the Spartans opened the game with Finn Howell and Tyce Moore both singling to position the Spartans for an opening run surge.

Lucas threw his top pitchers were in the first three games of the tournament and thus were unavailable in the championship game.

“We had Brad (Hodges) in game one (9Ks); Finn Howell in game two (3Ks, 12-2 win) and Jared Thomas in game three (4Ks, 1-0 win) and that restricted us from using them in the final,” said Lucas, who used seven pitchers for the championship game with Jude Howell starting. “We had to use a lot of young arms in the final and, the positive is, that experience is priceless for their improvement and our ability to use them back here in the playoffs with confidence.”

One player, junior Shawn Andrade, who has emerged has a big play shortstop with two turned double plays against Stoneman Douglas, with a big bat as well, the talent level forced all players to step up their game or be embarrassed.

“It was a cool experience for me and my teammates to compete against the top 16 teams in America,” said Andrade. “My teammates we had last year set the tone. We just want to finish the goal we missed last year. The bounce was just unlucky.”

A walk to Shawn Andrade loaded the bases with two outs off a fly ball to Brad Hodges and a strikeout of Jordan Taylor to set up Kody Daneault with a chance to blow the game open on his first at bat, Daneault grounded out to the first baseman.

“We had our chances throughout the game, but, as most championship teams do, they made some great plays,” said Lucas.

Stoneman Douglas answered quickly with their own bases loaded scenario when Hodges fubbed a grounder and starting pitcher Jude Howell hitting a batter to get Stoneman Douglas their first run before a single netted two more runs and change of pitchers for Spartans coach Tom Lucas, who exited Howell and entered sophomore Trevor Bradley who got a strikeout and a nifty pickoff at second base to put the inning to bed.

Eagles’ pitcher Jacob Gomberg got three flyballs to quickly put the Spartans back on the field.

In the bottom of the second, Hodges and Taylor both got on via a pitch strike to Hodges and walk to Taylor with Finn Howell’s pop up getting Hodges home on a well-time steal and Taylor safe at second base. Andrade grounded in Taylor for a 3-2 game with a series of mishaps by the Eagles defense on a Daneault grounder and Andrade quick-thinking baserunning tied the game at 3-3.

Lucas switched in junior Elias Hicks on the mound with Stoneman Douglas getting on base with two hit batters and scoring the 4-3 off a sacrifice fly. Gavan Bradley went to the mound for Lucas to end the inning on a fly ball.

Defense stuck the game in neutral with the Spartans; Andrade the start point at shortstop, executing a double play in the fourth inning to end the stanza.

Stoneman Douglas got their own double play in the ensuing inning with Taylor and Isaiah Mamea getting halted on a grounder to Stoneman Douglas third baseman Rylan Lugo.

Andrade would pin a second double play an inning later.

With Mamea on the mound, Stoneman Douglas got their fifth run in the fifth an Andrade error and two singles to gap the Spartans to 5-3.

St. Johns went for broke in the top of the sixth with a bases-loaded situation off walks to Boylston and Hodges and a singled from Vic Patel, but Boylston got caught attempting to steal home.

Arroyo gave up a single to Taylor in the final at bat for St. Johns with two flyouts and a strikeout ending the game.

St. Johns, now 13-2, advanced to the final with wins of 8-4 over Servite High (9-8) of California and 12-2 over Don Bosco Prep (3-4, 19-5 last year, region finalist) out of New Jersey. St. Johns was the Class 2A runnerup in Florida.

St. Johns trip to North Carolina followed a warmup week of wins with a 4-1 win over Trinity Christian (12Ks Brad Hodges), a 12-2 win over Oakleaf (Hodges homer, Finn Howell 9Ks) and a 9-6 win over Providencen (Finn Howell game winning homer).

The Spartans are back in town for a Wed., April 13 game against Tocoi Creek (5-8) and a road game at University Christian (13-4) on Thur., April 14.

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