It took some time, but the John Milledge Academy baseball team is playing up to its potential at the most crucial point in the season — the state playoffs.
The Trojans (13-8), Region 4-AAA champions and winners of their last eight in a row, are readying to face their next test as they are set to travel to Westfield in Perry this weekend for GISA AAA state semifinal action. The winner of the best-of-three series cements its spot in the state championship, while the loser will have to call it a season. Games 1 and 2 will be played Friday at 4 and 6:30 p.m. respectively, and Game 3 will be held Saturday at 1 p.m., if necessary.
John Milledge baseball’s semifinal berth was far from a sure thing at the midpoint of the regular season. With a record of 4-7 fresh off two losses in Frederica Academy’s annual spring break tournament, the team was in need of a boost. As it turned out, time was all the Trojans needed. They blasted Gatewood, a team that had defeated them early in the season, 13-3 coming off of spring break and won six of their last seven in the regular season. Second-year head coach Andy Bonifay knew his team may have been in for a less-than-stellar start while waiting for a slew of his athletes to transition from shooting 3-pointers to timing a fastball.
“We knew it was going to take a while for us to ultimately find our identity,” Bonifay told The Union-Recorder at Tuesday’s practice. “We got to about spring break, and it just felt like there were some changes that needed to be made. Guys were coming in late transitioning over from basketball. Sometimes it takes a guy two weeks, sometimes it takes him six to seven weeks … These guys have been playing at an elite level. They’ve been growing ever since spring break. A lot of people may get fooled by our record, but the development’s been there, which is what the focus has been.”
For example, entering this season Bonifay had only three players with more than 50 at-bats at the varsity level and only two pitchers that have thrown more than 20 innings. After a significant adjustment period, the Trojan bats are now booming and hurlers are hurling, making the team one of only four remaining vying for a state title.
“We’ve found the right fit,” added Bonifay. “These guys are meshing and their chemistry’s clicking. Sometimes it just takes awhile. A lot of coaches preach process, and that’s what it’s truly been. There’s so much inexperience out here, we had to hit the fast forward button on their development. They’ve really started to mature and it’s shown as they’re becoming baseball players.”
The Trojans’ opponent in the opposite dugout will be a familiar one. The Westfield Hornets, the Region 2 champs, were in the same region as John Milledge until the realignment that went into effect this year. The two teams still scheduled one another though in an April 17 bout that went in the Trojans’ favor as they won 7-4. The Hornets out-hit JMA 5-4, but six errors in the field contributed to Westfield’s demise.
“They have a lot of talent at all nine positions and a lot of pitching depth,” Bonifay said of his team’s semifinal opponent. “They bring a lot of athleticism, but at the same time they’re going to be aggressive offensively and try to out-power you on the mound.”
As for what he needs to see from his team in the semifinal series, Bonifay says he wants more of the same. The Trojans have been sound defensively, committing only two errors in four playoff games thus far, and have done a good job of making adjustments at the plate and putting the ball in play. On the mound, the winning formula has been to throw Jared Prestwood and his sidearm delivery in game ones, Jacob Prestwood to start game twos, and lefty Jackson Carter to finish out the second game.
“The pitching staff’s been great with Jared and Jacob as the 1-2 tandem,” Bonifay said. “Jackson’s been unbelievable out of the bullpen for us, that’s just something that’s got to stay consistent. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing and not change anything.”
The state semifinal series kicks off Friday at Westfield in Perry, and game one’s first pitch is slated for 4 p.m.