Two teams dominated the landscape of big school baseball for the Mainstreet Daily News coverage area in 2023.
The Columbia Tigers advanced to the 5A state semifinals for the second straight year and ended up 24-6.
The Buchholz Bobcats came up just short of their first Final Four appearance, finishing 21-7 and making it to the Region 1-6A final.
And those two teams monopolized the Bosshardt Realty Mainstreet Daily News Big School All Area team, combining for eight of the 11 players chosen.
Columbia leads the way with five selections. The Tigers were led by senior pitcher Josh Fernald. The UCF commit was 9-0 with a 0.56 ERA and allowed only 20 hits and four earned runs in 50 innings with 86 strikeouts.
“It was an absolute honor to coach Josh,” Columbia coach Chris Howard said. “Josh makes everyone around him better with his presence. He competes, works hard, lives right with his faith, and has the ability to match. Josh will be missed and the contributions he made to the CHS baseball program will always be remembered.”
Fernald’s catcher, another senior in Hayden Gustavson, joins the All-Area teams as well. Gustavson batted .437 with a team-high 38 hits and added 30 runs, 32 RBI, eight doubles and 25 stolen bases.
“A true student of the game with great ability as well,” Howard said. “Haydn competes with a passion and is like having another coach on the field. He will be missed.”
Two of the three outfielders are Tigers. Senior Matt Dumas batted .365 with a team-high 42 runs and 35 stolen bases and 31 hits. Junior Camdon Frier transferred from Suwannee and batted .314 with 24 RBI, 16 steals, and a team-high six home runs.
“Matt (Dumas) is a great person with a greater work ethic,” Howard added. “He has speed to burn and when he learns to utilize his speed with approach to hitting he will be a very tough out in college. He competes offensively and defensively.”
“The ball flies off of Camdon’s bat,” Howard said. “He hit a couple of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen hit in high school this season. Truly a five-tool player with tons of ability.”
The fifth and final Columbia player to be honored is third baseman Ayden Phillips. A sophomore, Phillips led the Tigers with a .452 batting average while adding 33 hits, 29 RBI and five doubles.
“One of the best pure hitters I’ve ever coached,” Howard said. “He has no fear in the batter’s box. He emerged as a team player throughout the season as a sophomore. He has a very bright future at CHS and at the next level somewhere.”
Buchholz just missed out on their first state semifinal appearance, losing late in the Region 1-6A final to Winter Springs 10-8. The Bobcats add three players to the Big School All Area squad.
Second baseman Cedaris Smith, a sophomore, led Buchholz with a team-high .430 average with 34 hits and 23 RBI.
“Cedaris led the way for us offensively,” Buchholz coach Ron Brooks said. “He came up with some really big hits and did a great job in the middle of the lineup. Defensively he helped steady us in the infield and made some big plays. He is extremely coachable and always looking to get better. Although he was just a sophomore he led like a senior.”
Senior Donny Hiebert represents Buchholz in the outfield. Hiebert, who will play football at FSU, hit .345 on 30 hits, 22 runs and 16 RBI.
“Donny has been a tremendous leader for us the last four years,” Brooks said. “His play on the field has been great but where he has been most valuable for us is in the locker room and the community. He has led the way and demonstrated exactly what it means to be a Buchholz baseball player on and off the field.”
The third and final Bobcat is junior starting pitcher Anthony Wilkie. A Clemson commit, Wilkie was stellar on the mound for Buchholz with a 6-1 record, 1.20 ERA, 64 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 46 innings.
“Anthony did a great job on the mound for us in 2023,” Brooks said. “He gave us quality starts each game he pitched going deep into ball games. His ability to throw three pitches and keep improving as each outing was fun to watch. He also adds a valuable presence in the middle of our lineup offensively.”
Santa Fe advanced to the postseason in 4A before bowing out at eventual state runner-up Bishop Kenny (Jacksonville) 1-0 in the regional quarterfinals.
Representing the Raiders is shortstop Zane Starling. Starling, who signed to play at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, led Santa Fe with a .382 average, 34 hits, and 12 doubles.
“Proud of the season and career Zane had at SFHS,” Santa Fe coach Travis Yeckring said. “Proud of the student and person he continued to mature into as well. We will certainly miss seeing him take the field in the red and gray. A special talent that got it done for us both offensively and on the mound and was a key component to our success the last three years.”
The P.K. Yonge Blue Wave just missed the postseason despite a 19-8 record. But the Blue Wave were led by sophomore Micah Gratto, who represents the utility on this team.
Gratto led the Blue Wave by batting .442 with 40 runs, 38 hits, eight doubles and 25 steals.
“Micah was a Buchholz transfer and his addition to the program solidified our roster at the top of the batting order,” P.K. Yonge coach Rob Brunson said. “He was our leader in several statistical categories and was a solid glove at third base. Maybe more important is that he’s a good teammate and a pleasure to coach.”
The final member of the Big School All Area team is first baseman Thomas Shay of Eastside. The Rams finished with a 7-9 record and Shay was a definite bright spot as he hit .368 with 22 runs, 14 hits and 13 RBI.
“Thomas’s senior season was in question after he suffered an elbow injury in the off season last summer,” Eastside assistant coach Tom Burke said. “But his passion and persistence paid off as he worked through his rehab in the fall; we at Eastside Baseball were very gratified to be a part of the success he had during his final season with us.”
Big School (3A-7A)
C – Hayden Gustavson (Sr./Columbia)
1B – Thomas Shay (Sr./Eastside)
2B – Cedaris Smith (So./Buchholz)
SS – Zane Starling (Sr./Santa Fe)
3B – Ayden Phillips (So./Columbia)
OF – Donny Hiebert (Sr./Buchholz)
OF – Matt Dumas (Sr./Columbia)
OF – Camdon Frier (Jr./Columbia)
Utility – Micah Gratto (So/P.K. Yonge)
P – Josh Fernald (Sr./Columbia)
P – Anthony Wilkie (Jr./Buchholz)
Bradford (Starke) – Mattox Burgin (Jr.), Jeffrey Brugh (Fr.), Luke Strucky (Jr.), Ryland Rike (Fr.)
Buchholz – Jungseob So (So.), Noah Hayse (Jr.), J.J. Gardner (So.), Cooper Collins (Jr.), Austin Cardozo (Jr.)
Columbia (Lake City) – Andrew Bennett (Sr.), Carston Palmer (Sr.), Brayden Thomas (Sr.), Grant Bowers (Jr.), Branson Mann (Jr.)
Eastside – Frank Mercado (Jr.), Maui Schwartz (Sr.), Nicholas Eichel (Sr.), Jayden McBride (Jr.)
Gainesville – Colton Kelly (Sr.), Nate Kemph (Sr.), Joshua Morison (Jr.), Tyler Guarino (Sr.), Connor Kemph (Fr.)
Keystone Heights – Noah Branch (Sr.), Chase Packham (Sr.), Kenneth Guy (Jr.), Gage Smith (Sr.), Austin Musgrove (Jr.)
P.K. Yonge – Jacob Pridgen (Sr.), Luke Sparkman (Jr.), Xander Sanetz (Sr.), Lane Sparkman (Sr.), Nick Roach (Jr.)
Santa Fe (Alachua) – Angel Irizarry (Fr.), Nate Robertson (Fr.), Dylan Lovelace (Jr.), Kyler Nowling (Sr.), Dylan Evans (Sr.), Dalton Dampier (Sr.)
Suwannee (Live Oak) – Ethan Layton (Sr.), Noah Lopez (Fr.), Braxtyn Greene (Sr.), Easton Kirby (Sr.), Logan Brooks (So.)