The Wendell McCraw Athletic Complex at St. Augustine High School was a buzz of activity on a sultry afternoon last week.
Football players were sweating through drills. Baseball players were taking their cuts and fielding grounders. The sounds of spring football are typical here in the month of May. The ping of the bats and pop of the gloves are not.
The Yellow Jackets baseball team was preparing for its Region 1-7A semifinal game Tuesday night at Nease High. The Jackets have not gone this deep in the playoffs since 1954 when the school, then known as Ketterlinus High, beat Gainesville 6-2 to win the Class 1A state championship.
Richard Powers, a retired colonel in the Florida National Guard, was the starting catcher on that team. He still lives a mile from the high school. His three sons all played baseball for the Yellow Jackets. None of them won a playoff game.
St. Augustine athletic director Jeff Holland won a district championship when he played baseball for the Yellow Jackets in 1984. Seven years later, he coached the Jackets to another district title. But neither team won a game in the playoffs. The Jackets’ 5-4 win over Columbia in Lake City on Tuesday was their first state playoff victory in 63 years.
“If we win this game (against Nease on Tuesday), we’ll get as far as the football team did (in the fall),” said left fielder Jacob Swindle. “I let them know that.”
Of course, football is king at St. Augustine. The Yellow Jackets have advanced to the state football semifinals six times since 2000. In 2005, they finished 15-0 and won a state championship. But this spring, Holland has noticed a swagger from the baseball players.
“I see those kids wearing their baseball T-shirts in school,” Holland said. “They have a pride about them.”
In 2015, coach Kevin Hayes took over a team loaded with seniors that won six games.
“After that, I said we’re changing this thing from guys who like to play baseball for a couple of months to baseball players,” said Hayes, now in his third season with the Jackets.
Most of the squad played baseball for Hayes at Sebastian Middle School. Several of the sophomores and juniors played together on the Ancient City Pirates when they were 9 and 10 years old.
“Being together helped us become a family,” said sophomore catcher Gage Riter. “We’ve always been close.”
They became even closer in March while watching Puerto Rico advance to the championship game in the World Baseball Classic. The Puerto Rico players bleached their hair blonde to build team unity. So the Yellow Jackets bleached their hair too.
“We saw how Puerto Rico grew together and how much energy they brought to every game,” Riter said.
There are some similarities to this year’s Yellow Jackets (16-13) and the 1954 Ketterlinus team that was 25-2. Most of the players on both teams grew up playing ball together.
“We had a good group of guys,” Powers said of the 1954 state champs. “I wouldn’t give up the time we were together for anything.”
Hayes said his players don’t give each other high fives after a big inning. They hug each other.
“We’re a close unit,” junior center fielder Andrew Capitano said. “No one’s egotistical. Everyone bonds well and gets along.”
Holland has seen the Jackets’ confidence grow each game, especially when sophomore pitcher Nick Phifer is on the mound. Phifer threw a two-hit shutout against top seed Creekside in the District 4-7A semifinals to lead St. Augustine to its first playoff appearance since 2011.
He was on the mound again when they beat Columbia for their first playoff win in more than six decades. And he’ll start again Tuesday at Nease.
“Any time Nick is on the bump, we have confidence we can beat anybody,” Swindle said. “His ability to make adjustments and not be affected if he gives up a hit is phenomenal.”
Nease has defeated St. Augustine three times this season. And each time, the Jackets’ hitters have struggled against Panthers’ pitching. But in the district final, when Nease jumped out to a commanding 10-0 lead after four innings, the Jackets’ tenacity was evident. They scored two runs in the seventh, leaving runners on second and third, before the Panthers wrapped up a 10-3 win.
“It’s very interesting,” said Holland. “The regional final is on graduation night (May 23). Hopefully that will be a problem I will have to solve. But Nease is a very good baseball team. They’re playing well at the right time also.”
“If we can win this game,” Swindle said, “it can propel us who knows how far.”