To use a baseball analogy in the middle of baseball season, this weekend is like the seventh inning, and it’s time to stretch.
Who’s safe? Who’s out? And who needs a big-time late-inning push to avoid getting struck out for the postseason?
Jacksonville’s high school baseball season enters its closing stages in the next two weeks, and by the month’s end, teams across the First Coast will be readying for the Florida High School Athletic Association district tournaments.
Schools across Northeast Florida are vying to rise in the rankings to begin the march toward Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, site of the FHSAA baseball championships between May 18-25.
This year, as in most other team sports, those rankings – a modified version of the MaxPreps formula – are taking center stage for the FHSAA. Once the association locks in the numbers on April 23, the rankings will determine seedings for the district tournaments, and they will ultimately determine which teams receive at-large playoff berths along with the automatically-qualified district champions.
Monday also marks another key date for Duval County, the start of the Gateway Conference baseball tournament. Mandarin defeated First Coast in last year final, while teams including Fletcher, Sandalwood and Stanton are also among the top contenders.
Here’s a look at where Jacksonville-area teams stand.
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St. Johns Country Day
Yes, there’s the 15-2 record, and the long list of future Division I college ballplayers (Bradley Hodges at Virginia, Finn Howell at North Florida and Jordan Taylor at Florida State, to name three). But these prospects are only part of the Spartans’ dominance to begin 2022. This team is a steamroller even against national elite teams, like Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey, flattened by a mercy-rule count at the USA Baseball National High School Invitational in North Carolina earlier this month. In this lineup, there are no easy outs, and some of the most productive Spartans of late, like sophomores Kyle Boylston and Kody Daneault, still have two-plus years to go. Multiple national outlets now rank the Spartans in the United States top 25. At this point, there’s every reason to believe St. Johns, Class 2A runner-up this year, has the strength and depth to make a repeat final four trip and perhaps bring home a long-awaited state title.
First Coast Varsity Weekly:St. Johns Country Day makes mark at USA Baseball NHSI
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Baseball leaderboard:Northeast Florida high school baseball statistics leaders through April 12
Long ball threat
Bradley Hodges, St. Johns Country Day
Battering opponents with wrecking-ball efficiency in the first two months of Spartans’ final season, Hodges is outperforming even the sky-high expectations from preseason. The numbers through the weekend: a .533 batting average, five doubles, seven home runs, 21 RBI, four steals and an OPS of 1,549. He’s been nearly impossible to retire all season, striking out three times in 67 plate appearances. The even scarier thing for opponents? Hodges is just as deadly on the mound, where he’s 7-0 with 23 baserunners allowed all year in 37 1/3 innings against elite-level competition, striking out 77 and wielding an ERA of 0.94.
Malachi Witherspoon, Fletcher
First, the obvious: With a college commitment to Jacksonville University, and a fastball capable of hitting the mid-90s, it’s no surprise that Witherspoon has been good. But he’s been better than good in 2022 – more often than not, he’s been flat-out unhittable. He’s got a 6-1 mark on the mound, with staggering numbers in 33 innings pitched: 65 strikeouts, only nine hits allowed and a rock-bottom 0.42 ERA. In his most recent outings, he allowed only one hit in 5 2/3 innings to Ridgeview on Tuesday and totally stumped powerful Sandalwood with an 11-strikeout one-hitter.
As surprise teams go, the Knights aren’t exactly a stunner. They’ve been near the playoff hunt several times in recent years, and held a 6-1 record in March 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic slammed play to a halt. Still, the FHSAA playoffs have floated just beyond Oakleaf’s grasp since 2017, a frustrating wait that could end this spring. This is a well-balanced team, with a .273 batting average and a 2.61 ERA, striking out opponents at a clip of more than one per inning. Leading that lineup are senior Leo Diaz (.375, 6 2B, 3 HR, 19 RBI, 1,096 OPS) and junior Devin Dizon (.360, 5 2B, 13 RBI, 1,004 OPS). Oakleaf can also move on the basepaths, particularly sophomore Jaythan Arriaga (18 steals) and outfielder / running back Devin Outlaw. They also field a particularly versatile player in sophomore Jorden Clarke, excellent this season on the mound (4-1, 1.56 ERA, 36 K in 31 1/3 IP).
Power team on the bubble
The Mustangs are 15-3, reign as Gateway Conference champions and own victories over the likes of Bishop Kenny, First Coast and Oakleaf. So, how can the Mustangs be on the bubble, with the eighth-best rating in Region 1-7A? The short answer comes down to the FHSAA’s ranking formula, which appears unimpressed by Mandarin’s strength of schedule (the association’s formula ranks it at 0.47, compared to 11.28 for Bartram Trail) in a region stuffed with contenders. So as much as Mustangs fans would prefer not to hear it, there’s still work to do. Fortunately, Mandarin can lean on a one-two pitching combination to rank with the best in Jordan Martin (4-1, 1.03 ERA, 47 K, 34 IP) and Nathan Webb (4-2, 1.87 ERA, 34 K, 30 IP). A strong Gateway tournament this week could give Mandarin a crucial boost ahead of the districts.
Team on a roll
Seven straight for the Senators. Fletcher hasn’t lost a game since March, beating Christ’s Church, Sandalwood, Union County, Paxon, White, Ridgeview and Creekside while allowing a grand total of four runs in that span. The key to success is a dose of double trouble. The Senators have a 1.96 team earned run average, paced by the aforementioned Malachi Witherspoon at the top of the rotation as well as Kyson Witherspoon (2-0, three saves, 20 2/3 IP, 46 K, 0.34 ERA) in relief. Malachi Witherspoon is also dishing out heavy hits at the plate with a .436 average, two home runs, 15 RBI and a 1.125 OPS, while Vinnie Sicilia (.359, two doubles, three triples, .999 OPS) and Angel Oquendo (. 283, 11 RBI, eight steals) are also key contributors in the batting order. They’re the early favorites entering what should be a competitive District 3-6A tournament.
The playoff race: Where teams stand
Sandalwood (1), Bartram Trail (4), Oakleaf (6), Mandarin (8), Creekside (14), Flagler Palm Coast (19)
Tallahassee Leon (4), Tallahassee Chiles (6), Gainesville Buchholz (7), Fleming Island (18)
Fletcher (5), Nease (12), First Coast (15), Ponte Vedra (16), Atlantic Coast (17)
Columbia (1), St. Augustine (7), Middleburg (9), Gainesville (12), Ridgeview (14), Orange Park (16)
Stanton (5), Englewood (11), Westside (15), Riverside (17), Parker (19), White (20)
Suwannee (1), Wakulla (5), Baker County (6), Tallahassee Godby (18), Gadsden County (21)
Clay (2), Bishop Kenny (7), Paxon (12), Yulee (13), Menendez (14), Tocoi Creek (15), Raines (22), Ribault (24)
Alachua Santa Fe (4), Dunnellon (7), North Marion (11), Palatka (16), Lake Weir (17), Gainesville Eastside (19)
Bishop Snyder (3), Baldwin (10), Keystone Heights (14), West Nassau (15), PK Yonge (21)
Providence (2), Episcopal (5), Bolles (6), Fernandina Beach (8), Wolfson (13), Jackson (24)
St. Johns Country Day (1), Trinity Christian (2), Eagle’s View (8), First Coast Christian (14)
University Christian (4), Christ’s Church (10), Parsons Christian (16), Seacoast Christian (17)
Gainesville Oak Hall (7), St. Joseph (9), Gainesville St. Francis (12), Peniel Baptist (18), Countryside Christian (20)
Union County (2), Fort White (4), Hilliard (5), Bradford (13)
Note: Schools’ ordinal rankings within their respective regions are in parentheses, based on April 11-15 edition of FHSAA’s weekly rankings.
Five key games to watch
April 21: Oakleaf at Episcopal
April 22: Bartram Trail at St. Johns Country Day
April 23: Suwannee at Clay
April 25: Trinity Christian at Sandalwood
April 28: Bolles at St. Johns Country Day
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.