The Santa Fe High School baseball team saw its season end with disappointment, when a five-run first inning led to a defeat at the hands of Panama City Arnold in the opening round of the playoffs.
Despite that disappointment, it was quite a regular season for the Raiders, who finished 23-3 and won the District 2-4A title with a 14-game winning streak and another eight wins in a row heading into the state playoffs.
Santa Fe's standout team landed three players on the inaugural Mainstreet Daily News/The Prep Zone All Area Baseball Team for big schools (3A-7A). A panel of local sports writers and coaches chose the team from among Mainstreet's eight-county coverage area. Each of the 44 honorees will receive a commemorate plaque.
Senior pitcher Ryan Brown led the way for the Raiders. Brown, a Lake Sumter State College signee, lost his only game of the season in the playoffs against Arnold, but all six runs he allowed in that game were unearned.
Brown's 2021 numbers were eye-popping: 10-1 with a 0.20 ERA, 98 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 70 1/3 innings. He also hit .279 with 12 hits and 6 runs batted in. Brown finished second in balloting behind North Marian's Deric Fabian for the Florida Dairy Farmers 4A Player of the Year.
"Ryan had an incredible season," Santa Fe coach Travis Yeckring said. "He put up video game numbers against the toughest teams on our schedule, and while most guys dominate with velocity, he did it by throwing multiple pitches for strikes and locating. It was fun to watch."
Brown's teammate in the starting rotation, sophomore Zane Starling, almost matched him on the mound for Santa Fe. Starling finished 5-0 win a 0.32 earned run average and also hurled three shutouts with 54 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 44 1/3 innings. He also hit .275 on 14 hits, with 13 runs scored and 18 RBI. Starling carried a zero ERA for most of the season. He will take over as the head of the Raiders rotation in 2022 with Brown moving on.
"The sky's the limit for Zane," Yeckring said. "He's a fearless competitor that attacks the strike zone. He has a really good breaking ball and his velocity will continue to tick up with his work in the weight room. The scary thing is this season was just the tip of the iceberg and we are excited to have him on the mound for two more years."
Brown and Starling's battery mate, junior catcher Landon Rogers, joins them on the All Area team. Rogers, who is also the starting quarterback for the Santa Fe football team, was fantastic behind the plate with only one error all season while handling a pitching staff with a team ERA of 0.79.
At the plate, Rogers led the Raiders with 21 RBI while hitting .333 on 23 hits, including seven doubles and two homers.
"He is a natural leader," Yeckring said. "He brought a presence, a toughness, and a work ethic to the team that was contagious. He handles the catching position as good as I've seen, and we can't wait to see how he develops in his senior year."
Buchholz and Live Oak Suwannee both place two players on the team. Buchholz had another fine season under coach Ron Brooks, finishing 18-7-1 and advancing to the state playoffs as the runner-up in District 2-6A.
Although chosen as an outfielder for this team, senior Caden Kresak also led the Bobcats on the mound in 2021. The left-hander hit .284 with 12 RBI and 24 runs scored, but the Lake Sumter State College signee was 3-0 with an ERA under 1 and 58 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings. Kresak also threw a no-hitter against rival Gainesville on April 15.
"He is an extreme competitor who has played an started for us for four years," said Buchholz coach Ron Brooks. "He created a lot of offense at the top of our lineup and defensively was huge for us in center field."
Kresak is joined by Buchholz teammate senior outfielder Cole Smithers. Smithers, committed to Palm Beach State College, batted .321 with 25 hits, 17 runs scored, six doubles, and 12 runs batted in.
"Cole plays with so much energy and passion," Brooks said. "He added a lot of toughness to our lineup and helped lift us offensively. Defensively he was extremely versatile and played a variety of positions."
Suwannee was one of the top teams in the state in 4A, but unfortunately played in a district with Santa Fe and Green Cove Springs Clay, as well as eventual regional finalist Baker County. Suwannee failed to make the state playoffs despite a 19-6 record, but the Bulldogs had some fine individual performances, led by first baseman Matthew Gill and second baseman Ryan LeNeave.
Gill, a junior, batted .413 with a team-high 23 RBI to go along with 31 hits and 24 runs scored. LeNeave, a senior, also hit over .400 and led Suwannee with 35 hits and 12 doubles, driving in 15 runs with 23 runs scored. LeNeave also stole 17 bases.
The rest of the team includes shortstop Mason Gray of Columbia, third baseman Maui Schwartz from Eastside, and outfielder Connor Guy of Keystone Heights.
Despite only two wins, Schwartz had quite a season for the Rams with a .524 average, 17 RBI, 22 hits and six doubles.
Guy, a freshman, led the Indians to a district title and the state playoffs with a .372 average, 32 hits and a team-high 27 runs scored, along with five doubles, four triples and 18 runs batted for the 2021 season.
Gray hit .373 for Columbia on 28 hits and scored 18 runs.
This is the fourth in a five-part series on the 2021 All Area baseball and softball teams, presented by Mainstreet Daily News and The Prep Zone. To see the softball rosters and stories, click here. To read about the small school baseball selections, click here.