SAINT THAT SOMETHING: Santa Fe wins school-record 16 straight in trek to JUCO
Johnny Wiggs has been coaching junior college baseball for nearly 20 years, the past 10 at Santa Fe College.
None of his teams had done what the Saints accomplished this spring.
“We went 42-8, to not lose 10 games and not lose back-to-back games all season, it was a consistent effort,” Wiggs said after the Saints won the always-tough Gulf District championship. Santa Fe won a school-record 16 consecutive games, from Feb. 15-March 11.
“We don’t do anything great, we just win ballgames. You look at our ERA (3.53), it’s OK, pretty good. Our team batting average (.311) is OK. When we didn’t pitch very well, we hit and covered our pitching up. When we didn’t hit, we pitched and covered our hitting up.”
Defensively the Saints have been pretty good, too, with a .963 fielding percentage, and the defense got better as the season progressed.
“Our freshman, Brandon Hernandez, anchored our defense and Matt Allen behind the plate,” Wiggs said. “You have to be strong up the middle and they anchored us defensively, but they don’t have loud numbers.”
Allen, a sophomore, has hit five of Santa Fe’s 40 home runs, but they came at the right time, with two in the Gulf District title game against Chipola. The first home run tied the game, and he was selected the tournament MVP.
“He’s not one of those off-the-charts tools guy,” Wiggs said. “He doesn’t hit it into the trees all the time in batting practice, when you see him throw in warmups he doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he throws guys out. He gets big hits; he’s a special player for us.”
Allen has signed to go to Liberty University next fall, and Wiggs said the Flames “got a steal.”
“He hit .380 something a year ago and this year it seems like every line drive got caught. He hit about .340 (.339) for us and is just a special kid on the field and off the field. He’s got all the intangibles, a great leader, Christian kid. He leads us in so many different areas and his bat got hot.”
Allen also manages a solid pitching staff, led by Trent Johnson, who’s 8-2 with a 2.29 ERA. He’s fanned 88 batters and walked only 20.
“He’s been our No. 1 the last couple of years,” said Wiggs, who won his 500th career game this season. “He was 9-1 last year as a freshman and is (8-2) this year. He beat Eastern Florida 6-1 (in the district tournament) and goes eight innings and bounced back (in the title game) on five days’ rest and went eight innings.
“He had one bad inning and Chipola scored four runs. He was sweating a lot, couldn’t grip the ball and there wasn’t a rosin bag out there. We got a rosin bag to him and he turned it on. He retired the last 14 batters he faced.”
David Lee is 6-1 in the No. 2 starter’s slot. The sophomore transferred from Florida International and has signed with the University of Florida. He throws in the low 90s and has a “plus-plus breaking ball,” Wiggs said.
Of the dozen pitchers the Saints carry, 11 got some work in the district tournament, allowing them to be fresh throughout the 10-team tourney.
When the Saints need a closer, they turn to Troy Bacon, who’s 4-1 and leads the nation with 14 saves. He’s allowed five earned runs over 44 innings, with a 1.02 ERA. The freshman right-hander transferred from Florida and has a 96-mph fastball, which is complemented by good off-speed pitches.
“He’s been tremendous,” Wiggs said. “He lost one game 3-1, we made an error that gave him a loss, but he gave up one (earned) run in all of conference plays, and he pitched in about 12 of our 23 conference games. He’s had a super year.”
Although the Saints aren’t in the final NJCAA Division I rankings, it’s because they didn’t submit the required statistics to be considered — the team was in the midst of the district playoffs at the time of the voting. The Saints are No. 2 in the Perfect Game rankings released May 24.
They entered the Gulf District playoffs as not only the No. 1 team in Florida, but in the nation. They handled that target well.
“Nobody in our state’s ever been ranked No. 1 going in and won the dang thing,” said Wiggs, who chuckled that the other coaches in the state tried to jinx the Saints by hanging the state’s No. 1 ranking on them. “That’s always been the curse. In 2009 we were about 6 or 7 in the state that year and snuck up on everybody.”
They learned to play, and more importantly, practice like front-runners.
“I would tell them basically at practice we need to practice like the best team in the country,” Wiggs said. “I stole this from somebody, maybe it was Bobby Knight, that everybody has the will to win, but the most important thing is the will to prepare.
“We told them in the tournament everybody is going to want to win as bad as we do. Nobody wants to lose and go home. It’s the will to prepare for those tournaments.
“We’ve prepared for this starting in August with weights and conditioning. You put in your dues in August. That’s the way we’ve handled that high ranking and talked about working like the best team in the country, not sticking your chest out. You practice and work hard.”