There were no high school softball or baseball state titles in 2023 but it was still a good year overall for teams in the Mainstreet Daily News coverage area.
Highlighting the small school seasons was Branford softball’s first-ever state championship game appearance in program history, and Newberry baseball’s return to the state semifinals.
Branford head coach Oscar Saavedra and Newberry coach Mike Spina were named the Bosshardt Realty Small School Coaches of the Year for their accomplishments.
“I would say the whole experience was surreal,” Saavedra said. “We set a goal at the beginning of the season and worked hard to achieve it. We played a lot of games, we tested ourselves. Finishing runner-up was bittersweet, it allowed us to get a taste of what it was like and I think it has ignited a fire within all of us to return and hopefully win.”
Branford, which advanced to its second final four in three years, finished 25-5 with only one senior on its roster.
“Our key to success is definitely the girls and their dedication and drive to succeed,” Saavedra said. “They are ready and willing to put in the time required. They have worked extremely hard and I can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”
Special recognition goes to Dixie County (Cross City) coach Greg Wimberley, who led the Bears to their second straight Class 1A state semifinal appearance, and Carl Williams of Williston, who led the Red Devils to a 26-3 season which ended against Dixie County, 5-3, in the 1A-Region 4 Final.
Branford, Dixie County and Williston each placed three players on the All Area team.
Newberry (16-9) edged Trenton, 1-0, to win the 1A-District 7 baseball title. They also knocked off Chiefland, 7-4, in the 1A-Region 4 Final to advance to their second final four in three years.
“This season we won the district championship again and moved on to win the regional championship with a young team,” said Spina, who led the Panthers to their fourth straight district title. “Our guys stayed focused down the stretch and got hot at the right time. I believe a lot of this success comes from the teams that we play during the regular season to prepare us for the playoffs late in the season.”
“I’m very proud of our guys and the work ethic they bring,” Spina said. “We are already preparing and working out to get ready for the 2024 season. I believe a lot of our success comes from players buying in to what we have to do to prepare for games every week. They work extremely hard in the off-season in the weight room and in the cages.”
Special recognition goes to Kevin Maris of Oak Hall, which won the 2A-District 4 title and won its first postseason game in 12 years, and 1A coaches Jiwan James of 1A-District 6 runner-up Union County (Lake Butler), Scott Hall of 1A-District 7 runner-up Trenton, and Chad Brock of Chiefland, all of whom made the state playoffs this year.
The big school softball COY was Gene Findley of Santa Fe (Alachua), while Ron Brooks of Buchholz was named the big school baseball COY.
With no seniors on its roster, Santa Fe edged Trinity Catholic (Ocala), 5-4, to win the 3A-District 5 title and earn a home playoff game.
“We have a very young team and I feel we played a pretty tough schedule to get us ready at the end of the season,” Findley said. “We had not won a district title since 2019 so this was a huge accomplishment for this team, and I feel playing a tougher schedule paid off as we ended making it to the second round of playoffs.”
The Raiders (16-10) defeated Crystal River, 1-0, in the Class 3A regional quarterfinals. They were the only big school team in the area to win a regional playoff game.
“I feel the key to our success was playing a tougher schedule this year as well as trying to create great team chemistry,” Findley said. “I feel that team chemistry was the key to our success.”
Special recognition for Cindy Dansby of Columbia (Lake City), which lost 2-0 to top seed Ridgeview (Orange Park) in the 5A-District 2 title game but earned a postseason bid. Their season ended at 16-8 following a first-round 4-2 loss at eventual 5A state runner-up Deltona.
Meanwhile, Brooks guided the Buchholz baseball team to its first district title since 2015 with a 9-0 win against Fleming Island (Orange Park) in the title game.
“This season was a lot of fun for Buchholz Baseball,” Brooks said. “Our players put in a lot of work and to see them rewarded with a great season was special. They truly are great young men and represent our school and program in a way that has made me proud to be their coach. I also want to thank my assistant coaches for all they do for Buchholz baseball. Each one of them makes my job so much easier and they are great role models for our student athletes.”
Buchholz, which only had five seniors on this year’s roster, was just one win away from its first final four in program history.
“I am really looking forward to coaching these players again next year,” Brooks said. “We return most of the 2023 team and the sting of losing our last game will help drive us to be better next season.”
Special recognition goes to Chris Howard, who led Columbia (Lake City) to the 5A-District 2 title and its second straight state semifinal appearance, and Travis Yeckring of 4A-District 4 runner-up Santa Fe, which lost 1-0 in the regional quarterfinals to eventual Class 4A state runner-up Bishop Kenny (Jacksonville).
Coach of the Year (1A/2A)
Oscar Saavedra (Branford)
Honorable mention: Greg Wimberley (Dixie County), Carl Williams (Williston)
Coach of the Year (3A-7A)
Gene Findley (Santa Fe)
Honorable mention: Cindy Dansby (Columbia)
Coach of the Year (1A/2A)
Mike Spina (Newberry)
Honorable mention: Kevin Maris (Oak Hall), Jiwan James (Union County), Scott Hall (Trenton), Chad Brock (Chiefland)
Coach of the Year (3A-7A)
Ron Brooks (Buchholz)
Honorable mention: Chris Howard (Columbia), Travis Yeckring (Santa Fe)