ORANGE PARK, Fla. – The stage was set for this to happen a year ago at St. Johns Country Day.
The Spartans were rolling along at 7-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state, a presumptive favorite to wind up in the high school baseball final four.
And then …
The pandemic shut all of that down, denying St. Johns a chance to reach Fort Myers during a year it would have been a favorite to.
This year, the Spartans have been on a mission, honing in on a state championship push that was likely delayed by a season.
When St. Johns (23-6) faces Mount Dora Christian (22-6) at 10 a.m. Wednesday at CenturyLink Field, it marks one more hurdle cleared by the Orange Park program. For a school that opened in 1953, the Spartans had never been past the second round of the playoffs in 16 previous postseason trips.
A win would send St. Johns on to a Thursday championship game at 4 p.m. against Out-of-Door Academy or Deltona Trinity Christian.
This year, the Spartans have been a team on a relentless quest to make history and make up for lost time.
Shortstop Connor Moore has been arguably the most feared hitter in the area. The Florida State signee is hitting .384 with 10 homers and 38 RBI. Jace Thomas (Flagler College signee) is 5-1 on the mound. UNF commit Finn Howell is 5-0 and will likely get the start in the semifinal. Bradley Hodges (Virginia commit) and Jordan Taylor (Florida State commit) are two of the most visible names in the country in the Class of 2022.
All that talent was there last year, too, and didn’t get the chance to finish.
Coach Tom Lucas said that the message to players was simple after the pandemic ended the season abruptly. Play every game like it’s the last one because it could be.
Lucas uses the lone senior from last year’s team, Jack Hodges, as an example, and Spartans players refer to him frequently, saying that they wish he was a part of this year’s team. It’s one more personal reminder that they have a task in front of them and they’re not done yet.
Last year was supposed to be the year for St. Johns.
“It really showed these kids that you’ve got to take every moment, like you just can’t take anything for granted. Every practice,” said Lucas, the program’s seventh-year head coach.
“And that’s kind of what we preach to them is almost, take that as life kind of threw you a tough punch, and just get a little bit mad about it. Come out here with a chip on your shoulder and don’t let anybody take it away from you this year.”
St. Johns put together the most challenging schedule in the area and faced as many elite teams as it could. The Spartans went to the IMG National. They played just three regular season games against teams in Class 2A. It played Bolles and Clay and Fleming Island and Spruce Creek.
“We’re not going to intimidate anybody by all our commits, or how big and strong we are, we’re going to have to earn it,” he said. “We’re going to have to throw strikes hit the ball hard and field the ball and throw the ball.”
St. Johns wanted to be challenged and took the most difficult path it could to the state semifinals and not be rattled if it got there.
“I expect us to play like how we’ve been playing, as a team, and play together,” said pitcher and outfielder Bradley Hodges. “That’s what we wear on the back of our shirts, whatever it takes.”
Taylor said that the Spartans have enjoyed those big moments this season, none bigger thus far than last Saturday’s 4-0 win over Tallahassee North Florida Christian in the regional final. It’s been a year in the making.
“That’s what we want. We’re getting better as we play. We compete against really good teams and we got better,” he said. “We learned when we lost, we took six losses but I mean we can learn from each one of them. That’s what made us who we are and why we’re here right now.”