Just a few years removed from playing college baseball, John DiBenedetto already is thriving in his first varsity baseball head-coaching gig.
Over the summer, DiBenedetto, 24, was hired as the new coach for the Academy at the Lakes baseball program.
Previously, he assisted Carrollwood Day School’s varsity baseball program.
DiBenedetto heard about the job opening when he was helping out at a baseball clinic last summer.
“I didn’t even know what Academy at the Lakes was, to be completely honest,” DiBenedetto said, “because I’m a Hillsborough County guy, all the way.”
“It was a long two-month (hiring) process, but it worked out great. I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
In high school, DiBenedetto was a standout catcher at Newsome High and Blake High. His skills afforded him the opportunity to earn a college baseball scholarship, where he spent two years apiece at Division II Saint Anselm (New Hampshire) College and Division III Rivier (New Hampshire) University.
With his playing days nearing an end in college, DiBenedetto had an interest in coaching.
“At the end of my junior year, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I kind of got into it my senior year,” he said, noting he started analyzing game situations more closely and talking to others about the profession.
Being the Academy’s fourth head coach in as many years, DiBenedetto quickly realized he had a massive challenge on his hands, since the program recently suffered from instability and coaching turnover.
Even at the varsity level, several players still hadn’t yet grasped some of the game’s fundamentals — such as knowing how to run bases, how to bunt or take a sign from third base.
The young coach said the biggest initial struggle for him has been changing the culture of the once “broken” program.
For DiBenedetto, changing the culture consists of having players “buy in” and show up to practice every day ready to work.
“Before I came in, practices just consisted of warming up, throwing a little bit, hitting some BP (batting practice) and going home,” said DiBenedetto, whose father, John Sr., also helps out with the day-to-day program operations.
“Now we have the organization where we’re working on specific situations all the time, and everything we do at practice is for a reason. It’s not like we’re just out there just to hit. Everything is very structured, time-based.”
The results are beginning to show.
The Wildcats already have three wins, which ties as many as they had all of last year.
With a 3-6 record as of March 14, DiBenedetto hopes the team can finish close to .500 by season’s end.
“Our main goal from day one is to give us a chance in April in districts,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s very reasonable. It can be done.”
Though it takes time to build a sustainable high school program, DiBenedetto is excited about the team’s prospects over the next few years.
This year’s squad features a unique mix of youth — four seventh-graders and an eighth-grader have played in a varsity game — and experience, highlighted by seven seniors.
“All of these kids had been going to school here, and I had to kind of go in and recruit them,” DiBenedetto said. “A lot of them just played travel ball, and had no interest playing on the high school team because of the struggles and the coaching turnover. When I was able to be here every day…I was able to have conversations with kids.”
Perhaps the most intriguing player on the roster for this season and next season is junior pitcher Darin Kilfoyl, a towering 6-foot-8 right-hander who sports a 1.84 earned run average.
In the team’s most recent win on March 3 against Victory Christian, Kilfoyl struck out 19 batters in a complete game, one-hit shutout.
While still “extremely raw,” Kilfoyl is drawing interest from several Division I coaches due to his lengthy frame and skillset.
“He’s got a very good curveball,” DiBenedetto said. “He throws 86 to 88 (miles per hour). He powers the strike zone.
“The thing the D-I coaches have seen is that he can get better; that’s the scary part about it,” the coach said.
Offensively, Kilfoyl leads the team in home runs (two) and RBIs (eight).
But, it’s Kilfoyl’s intangibles that really stand out to his head coach.
“He’s a great teammate,” DiBenedetto said. “He’s a leader. He works hard every day. He shows up, and he communicates.”
For Kilfoyl and the rest of the team, “the success is starting to come,” DiBenedetto said.
Published March 16, 2016