Experiences, even the tough ones, pay off for young, talented Baldwin softball team

After years of playoff struggles, Indians in state semifinals for 1st time

Coach Jennifer Shields (center back) talks to softball players during a Tuesday morning practice at Baldwin. (Justin Barney, News4JAX)

BALDWIN, Fla. – The Baldwin softball team is making history and has no intention of stopping now.

Or next year. Or the year after that.

Not with a roster this young and talented.

The Indians had never been past the second round of the state playoffs until this season. Now, they’re just two victories away from a state championship. Baldwin (26-2) faces Clearwater Calvary Christian (22-6) on Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the Class 3A state semifinals in Clermont. Should the Indians win there, they’d play for the state championship on Thursday night at 6.

Title or not, don’t expect Baldwin to be satisfied. With just two seniors and the playoff hump finally cleared, the Indians are positioned very well for the future. And that has been a long time in the making for coach Jennifer Shields and assistant Bobby Granville.

Now in her 10th season with the Indians, Shields said that she’s got a new appreciation for just what it takes to get this deep in the postseason. Baldwin has been one-and-done three times in the playoffs in those 10 years, including a tough loss to Episcopal last season.

As a young coach, Shields thought with some of the Baldwin lineups, playoff success would be a natural progression. It didn’t take too long to find out that the postseason is a different animal.

“Our first year [2013] we made it to the elite eight. We had a lot of talent and we’re like, ‘yeah, we’ll be back multiple times.’ It took 10 years to get back,” she said. “[It’s sweet] Especially with our two seniors, Kayla [Robinson] and Piper [Young], they’ve been with us since sixth grade and worked so hard to get to this point and they’re great student athletes. We’re real thrilled for them.”

Baldwin has put in the work with a lineup that’s perpetually young.

Since Baldwin is a middle-senior high school, it’s not unusual to see young players dot the lineup every season. It’s not always easy for those younger players to adjust to the speed of the varsity game. But when they do, the payoff can be immense.

“It was definitely harder competition that I was not used to,” said sophomore catcher Cali Hartung, who leads the team in batting (.443), doubles (16) and hits (39). “I mean, I was only 14 years old, I wasn’t used to playing the kind of ball like that. And now that I’m used to it, it’s a lot easier.”

Robinson and Young, the team’s lone seniors, have been instrumental in this year’s run. Robinson leads the team in home runs (five) and is tied with eighth-grader Jasmine Ramos-Merced for the team lead in RBI (25). Young has been steady and dominant in the circle (1.32 ERA, 132 Ks in 143.2 IP). She even belted a two-run homer in a 3-2 regional final victory over Keystone Heights that helped send the Indians onward.

When Robinson and Young play their final game or games in Clermont this week, the Indians won’t have to look far for more experience.

Ramos-Merced (.395) and Chloe Gotto (.330) will both be freshmen. Kendall North (.370) and Rylan Gray (.309) will be sophomores.

If they follow a path navigated by Robinson and Young, the future will be just as bright.

Not long ago, Robinson and Young were sixth graders sneaking in time on varsity with Baldwin and taking their learning experiences, too. Shields and Granville try and bring up younger players for varsity experience as they can. It’s not unusual to spot sixth and seventh graders in the lineup in any given season for the Indians. Those players soak up playing and practice time and build off it. By the time they actually make it to their freshman season, they’ve likely logged a bit of time against varsity competition.

For Young, that experience has been invaluable during her final season. And if younger players don’t quite see the benefits during the struggles, something that’s difficult to do sometimes, Young said she’s a prime example that the struggles do pay off.

“I feel like for me, I, 100% would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for Coach Shields and Coach Bobby sticking a leg out, bringing me up in sixth grade to play varsity and just allowing me to practice with them, start maybe one or two games with them in sixth grade against some of the teams that were a little iffy-er,” Young said. “But it helped out a lot. It’s definitely paid off for me as an athlete. And it’s just had me mature a lot quicker, which is very needed.”

Class 3A state semifinal

Baldwin (26-2) vs. Calvary Christian (22-6)

When: Wednesday, Legend’s Way Ballfield, Clermont, 2 p.m.

Road here: Baldwin d. Episcopal, 2-11; d. Florida High, 12-0; d. Keystone Heights, 3-2; Calvary d. Frostproof, 11-3; d. Parrish Community, 2-0; d. Academy of the Holy Names, 10-3.

Winner gets: Coral Springs Charter or Hernando in the state championship on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Watch it: Game will be streamed on NFHS Network. Cost is $10.99 for a monthly pass.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.