After five seasons of varsity baseball, senior Eric Hutchison can finally say he was part of a winning team.
“It’s always nice to be the first success in something. The fact that I’m a senior makes it much better,” said Hutchison, a team captain pitcher/infielder who’s played for Academy at the Lakes (AATL) since eighth grade.
The Wildcats just wrapped up its first winning season in program history, posting a 12-9 regular season mark, under third-year head coach John DiBenedetto.
As several other of the school’s sports programs achieved notable success of late—namely football, basketball and softball— baseball often lagged behind.
The baseball team suffered five consecutive winless seasons from 2006 to 2010, and went a combined 17-45 from 2011 to 2015.
Hutchison remembers some of those trying years.
“When I played in eighth grade, it was rough,” he said. “We only won one or two games and that was due to forfeit…”
It hasn’t been the case the past three years under new leadership, however.
Since the 27-year-old DiBenedetto took over, the program has quietly been on an upward trajectory, going 8-11 in 2016, 9-12 in 2017 and then 12-9 this season.
A former standout at Blake and Newsome high schools, and later playing college baseball on scholarship in New Hampshire, DiBenedetto has brought an approach that prioritizes skill development and proper fundamentals, and mastering game situations via organized, purposeful practices and workouts.
A sign of the team’s previous struggles, DiBenedetto is already the program’s winningest coach with 29 career wins.
“He’s a really fun dude to play for,” said freshman middle infielder Jordan Oladokun, who’s played varsity baseball since seventh grade. “Honestly, I was thinking about quitting baseball, and he was the one that made me keep continuing my baseball career. …So, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here playing baseball right now.”
DiBenedetto’s in-game strategy is best described as “overly aggressive” — taking extra bases, stealing often, and manufacturing runs via hit-and-run plays.
The Wildcats collectively have 93 stolen bases (out of 103 attempts).
It’s a style that puts added pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses in the 2A ranks, forcing them to “make a play.”
“Because they’re high school kids in the moment, it’s not easy to field a ground ball and make a throw,” DiBenedetto said of the strategy.
But, the Wildcats newfound success is more than just a byproduct of small ball.
A quick glance at the numbers and it becomes clear why the Wildcats have enjoyed a breakout campaign.
The team batted a collective .351 with a .456 on-base percentage, setting a program record in about every offensive statistical category, from home runs (nine) and doubles (34), to RBIs (142) and runs scored (169).
The lineup showcased four .400-plus hitters — Oladokun (.455), freshman Andrew Kilfoyl (.452), Hutchison (.424), and freshman Jack Teeter (.411) — and two others batting over .350—freshman newcomer Spencer Boynton (.359) and senior Joel Eason (.353).
The pitching staff, anchored by Hutchison and others, likewise held its own, posting a 3.62 team ERA and 174 strikeouts in 120 innings pitched.
Making the most of a young roster
It was all done with a thin roster of just 11 healthy players, composed mainly of freshman, sophomores and eighth-graders.
Though young, the team was battle-tested with many who’ve played varsity since seventh grade and eighth grade, under DiBenedetto, respectively.
Players suggest the prior seasons together yielded greater camaraderie and trust, and therefore more success.
“We kept the same guys here the whole time, so we all got closer, all started getting to know each other. We really got to know each other better, so that was really good,” Oladokun said.
“We play for each other,” Kilfoyl added. “We’ve been playing together, not so much for ourselves, but as one whole team.”
Meanwhile, DiBenedetto had an inkling 2018 was time for a breakout, after building up the program the last couple years.
Entering the season, the coach saw “a much more well-rounded team” with a strong batting order top to bottom and a deep pitching staff — even following the graduation of Darin Kilfoyl, Andrew’s older brother, who was perhaps the most dominant pitcher/hitter in program history. He now plays at St. Johns River State College in Palatka.
“We kind of knew coming in that, if it wasn’t last year, it was going to be this year,” the Wildcats coach said of a winning season.
“You didn’t have the superstar (Darin Kilfoyl) anymore, and that was the only fear at first…but, they’ve all complemented each other in their own certain outright way,” he said.
Along with a roster chock-full of underclassmen, the Wildcats racked up victories despite losing two key players to injuries in the first week of the season.
Not having a true home field was another challenge they’ve overcome.
While the team practices at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, its handful of “home games” was at Northwest Little League near Leto High School in Hillsborough County, at least a 45-minute drive from the Academy at the Lakes campus. It’s a neutral site, at best, the coach said.
Moreover, several road games were in Citrus, Hernando, Pinellas and Polk counties.
“We’re traveling all over the place and to be where we are right now, it’s a credit to them,” DiBenedetto said.
Exceeding opponents’ expectations
Wherever they play and no matter the competition, DiBenedetto noted Wildcats players this year always came to the ballpark with a winning attitude and belief in themselves.
It resulted in winning several close games and coming from behind in others — each the makings of “a good baseball team.”
Said DiBenedetto: “We have the conversation, ‘Prove everyone wrong because nobody expects you to do stuff. Continue to prove people wrong, and battle and chip, and fight and claw for what you deserve.’ That’s kind of been the motto we’ve adopted and hung onto all year, so we’ve embraced it; it’s been fun.”
Ask players their favorite game this season and it’s unanimous: A 6-5 win against Canterbury in early March — the Wildcats’ first-ever victory against the rival St. Petersburg-based private school.
Oladokun summed it up best: “Played them every single year, can’t beat ‘em. Played them twice a year, can’t beat ‘em. And, this year, everyone kind of was doubting us because we didn’t have Darin Kilfoyl, ‘the man.’ Everyone’s doubting us, and we went in there, beat ‘em 6-5, close game.”
The contest had extra meaning for Hutchison, the senior leader.
Two years ago, Hutchison allowed the winning run in the ninth inning of the district quarterfinals Canterbury, a 3-2 loss.
“It was super, super depressing because a bunch of seniors left that year, and we kind of sent them off on not the best note,” Hutchison recalled.
This time around, however, Hutchison made the last play to end the game.
“I got the ‘last say’ essentially. That was such a great feeling,” he said.
And, it’s likely not the last time Academy at the Lakes will get the best of Canterbury or other teams who previously dominated the once-floundering baseball program.
With a solid young corps to build around combined with coaching stability, the outlook seems promising for 2019 and beyond.
“It’s been a really fun year, and I’m looking forward to next year,” said Boynton, a shortstop/pitcher in his first year at Academy at the Lakes after attending Benito Middle School. “Hopefully we can get some more wins next year, too.”
DiBenedetto said the goal is to make modest improvements each season.
Still, he can’t help but think about the possibilities once his crop of talented freshman, like Boynton, become seniors.
“Just imagine three years from now when they’re going to be big and strong. It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be exciting,” he said.
Published May 2, 2018