FLEMING ISLAND – One team in Clay County seemed destined to make a deep playoff run in 2018 with a returning squad of veterans while another team started disastrously with miscues foiling any thoughts of a playoff spot.
For Clay High, the guy who was the face of the Blue Devils’ strength was senior Connor Solomon, a pitcher, shortstop and occasional clutch hitter for coach Josh Persinger.
For Fleming Island High, Caleb Lanoux, a senior pitcher and catcher, somehow unraveled the diamond in the rough play of his Golden Eagles with enough grit and gruff to push to a region final playoff spot.
In March, with Lanoux and Solomon both on the mound, Fleming Island struck for three runs in the first inning to set up a pitcher’s duel that ended with Lanoux holding off a late comeback attempt by Clay for a Golden Eagle 3-2 win.
“That Clay game was important to us believing we should have been winning some of the close games we had,” said Fleming Island coach Grant Bigilin. “From there, we started believing. Caleb was a big part of that.”
Solomon, after leading the Blue Devils to a sterling season, responded to his own disastrous district title game against Ponte Vedra, a 6-4 loss, with a string of performances that included an eight strikeout win over Stanton, a tough rematch win over Ponte Vedra (in Ponte Vedra) before clamping down the explosive offense of Final Four powerhouse Mosley High of Lynn Haven to put Clay into the Final Four.
“Everything we heard about Mosley was they put the ball in play,” said Persinger. “We were curious how that was going to play out because Solomon has been a strikeout guy all year.”
Clay went one game further with a demoralizing loss to Tampa Jefferson in the Class 6A semifinal with a sickness-slowed Solomon lasting just three innings.
“He has been our horse all year and is a huge part of why we were there,” said Persinger. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d give him the ball. Regrets? None, but I’ll always wonder what could have been if we have him at 100 percent. I like our chances.”
Fleming Island, led by Lanoux’s mound presence, rode a wave of inspired play through an unexpected district semifinal win over rival Fletcher and, once bestowed with a shot at a district title, finishing the task with a thrilling last inning district title win.
With many outside the dugout believing the Golden Eagles would fall to defending Class 8A champion Tallahassee Lincoln in their region opener, Lanoux unleashed a pitching performance for the ages that got a win over Lincoln, a win over Tallahassee Chiles in round two and nine innings of strong-armed play into the region final against Strawberry Crest.
“We just put everything on the table and see what happens,” said Lanoux, who mastered three region playoff wins for the Golden Eagles to get the historic championship game. “We dreamed of a game like this, just not this ending.”
Against Strawberry Crest, Lanoux again held the big bats of the enemy at bay into the ninth inning with a 0-0 score.
Unfortunately, fatigue finally caught up to the cagey veteran and a long double ended the Cinderella run at 2-0.
“We are going to miss Caleb for sure,” said Fleming Island High baseball coach Grant Bigilin. “He is such a tough competitor and he makes the rest of the team do the necessary plays to make the outs out there. He’s been the heart and sole of this team.”
For both their efforts in ending their respective seasons in blazes of glory and leadership, Solomon and Lanoux are named as Clay Today Baseball All County Co-Players of the Year.
Solomon finished with a 9-2 season record, 133 strikeouts and a 1.78 earned runs average while batting for 12 runs batted in with two homers.
Lanoux finished at a 1.00 earned runs average with 76 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched with just eight walks for the season. Lanoux finished with an 8-3 record with three wins of four in the playoffs.
For the Clay Today All County First Team, at catcher, Ridgeview High junior Anthony Roman was the wall behind home plate for coach John Sgromolo with an impressive low of just four field errors in 174 touches with 23 outs on 35 base steal attempts.
“He might be the best defensive catcher in northeast Florida,” said Sgromolo.
In the infield, at third base, Clay High senior Tyler Spence saved his best game for his final while leading Blue Devils’ defense; Fleming Island’s Noah McCollum, a junior, was a highlight reel in the six hole, Ridgeview High senior Brandon Dumas, a transfer from Orange Park, highlighted the Panthers’ defense at second base while being one of their biggest bats and also pitching and Clay’s Andy Yarbrough, a senior, was a Jack-of-all-Trades at first base as well as being a Blue Devil closer on the mound.
Spence was Clay’s go-to bat throughout the season, but his two doubles in the Class 6A championship game were not enough. From third base, Spence executed five double plays.
“Spence has been a proven three-hole hitter for his entire career here at Clay,” said Persinger. “Last year, he put two balls off the 410 center field wall in Port St. Lucie at the Mets Complex. It broke my heart watching him tear up after the loss (Jefferson).”
McCollum raised his game for the Golden Eagles’ playoff run following Lanoux’s lead from the mound and making numerous acrobatic plays to thwart potential baserunners. McCollum finished with a .328 batting average with 15 steals.
“He was a gamer,” said Bigilin. “Whenever we needed big defensive play, it seemed he got it.”
At second base, Dumas was a pitch-crusher wiht a .453 batting average with 12RBIs and seven doubles coming with just three times being struck out. Dumas also stole 10 bases and punched up a 2-2 pitching record with 28 strikeouts.
Yarbrough, one of the smallest players on the field, played with the biggest energy for Clay with 11 double plays coming his way and just four errors on 82 touches. Yarbrough also pitched to a 1.28 ERA on 36 innings.
“Andy was one of the leaders on the team,” said Persinger. “He was an absolute workhorse with shut down work against Ponte Vedra three years in a row.”
In the outfield, Ridgeview High senior Maury Gonzalez patroled the field with equal speed and arm power while being one of Sgromolo’s best hitters wiht a .443 BA and 18 RBIs with three doubles, three triples and a home run.
Centerfield goes to Fleming Island senior Drew Wilkerson who, according to Bigilin, executed error free all season while hitting .308 and stealing 15 bases. Wilkerson led the team in getting on base and scoring runs with 23 runs.
In right field, Clay High senior Kevin Jackson finished off a strong career with a .398BA, 12 RBIs and two homers plus 15 stolen bases. Jackson’s consistent good positioning in right field led to just three errors in 73 touches with 69 putouts and a double play to first base with a heads up catch and rifle to first base.
Co-Players of the Year
Caleb Lanoux, senior, Fleming Island
Connor Solomon, senior, Clay
Troy Britts, SJCDS, Senior, 6-3 record, 2.5 ERA, 79 Ks in 55 innings. Was 3A player of the year.
Anthony Roman, RHS, Junior, Threw out 23 of 35 stolen base attempts. .275BA, 10RBIs 2 2Bs, 11 putouts, 4 errorw in 174 touches
Andy Yarbrough, CHS, Senior, .290, 9RBI, 11DPs, 4E 82Touches, 1.28 ERA in 36 innings
Brandon Dumas, RHS, Senior- Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (GA) Commit- INF- .453 AVG, 34 Hits, 16, RBI, 7 2B, 16BB, 4K, only struck out 3Ks, LOB22, 10Steals, 2-2 Pitcher, 28Ks
Noah McCollum, FIHS, Junior, Hit .328, 15 stolen bases
Tyler Spence, CHS, Senior, .317, 22RBIs, 6 2Bs, 1Hr, 55LOB, 4E 48Touches, 5DPs
Maury Gonzalez, RHS, Senior- Thomas University Commit, .443 AVG, 35 Hits, 18 RBI, 3 doubles, 4 triples, 1 homerun
Drew Wilkinson, FIHS, Senior, Stole 15 bases, hit .308 and had an on base percentage of .481. Andrew College Signee
Kevin Jackson CHS, Senior, .398 12RBI, 2HR
Evan Wickieri, RHS, Senior, 7-1 1.50 ERA, 34K (35 innings), .333, 11RBI, 5 2b, 2 3Bs
Alex Kanos, KHHS, Senior, .400BA, 7RBIs, 93% FP, 10E 146 T, 5Steals
Cody Myers, SJCDS, Senior, .270 with 4 HRs and 6 doubles
Collier Summer, FIHS, Senior, Led the team in hits, average, OBP, Slugging, doubles, and tied for extra base hits. Offensive spark plug in the middle of the order. (.333/.500/.503)
Blain Jones, OHS, Senior
Austin Kittle, RHS, Senior, .353, 25RBIs, 8 2Bs, 1 3B, 1HR, 11 steals, 1 E 67 touches,- Thomas University Commit-
Gary Searle, KHHS, Senior, .314, 8RBIs, 4 2Bs, 7SB, 18K in 24 Appearances
Collin Henderson MHS, Senior, .329BA, 6 2Bs, 1 3B, 2 HRs, 15RBIs, 13 stolen bases
Tyler Turner, RHS, Senior, .246, 13RBi, 1HR
CHS: Jacob Owens, CHS, Senior CF , 7steals; Nick Barrie, Junior LF .325BA, 17RBI; Josh Lemen, Senior 2B, .340, .308.; Dylan Faulkner, Junior P/LF 7-1, 1.68ERA; Chase Holman, Soph C, .310, 18RBI, 1Hr, 3 3Bs
OHS: Logan Schmidt P; Colby Coldiron C; Noah Detrick P
Keegan Barrs 3B
SJCDS: Tyler Kuramoto, SJCDS, junior 3B- batted .365 with 9 doubles and 2 HRs; Finn Howell, SJCDS 2B; Troy Myers, Senior, career .350 hitter and batted .265 this year with OBP of .430. Had 7 doubles. Also pitched; Hunter Russell 8th grader 1B, batted .350 in 2 hole all year. 23 hits with 5 doubles’ Tanner Zellum (OF) 3HRs
FIHS: Zack Mercer, Junior, 3B/P, Led the Golden Eagles in RBI’s with 17, triples, Hit .286, Pitched 33 innings, striking out 34, and having an ERA of 1.38; Justin Hawkins, Junior, 1B/P
RHS: Jared Wilson LHP- Junior- 18ip, 1-1 record, 3.5 ERA
Marcus Roman- LHP- Senior 30ip 4-1 record, only 5 walks, 29K, 2.57 ERA; Richie Long- Freshman- RHP- 2-1 record, 2 saves, 26 innings pitched, 9 earned runs, 27 strikeouts, 2.42 era
KHHS: Connor O’Steen, Senior (1B/P).324, 19RBIs, 1Hr, 2SB, 6DP, ,967 FP. 2 Errors 60 touches, 47Ks, 44 innings; Trey Alsabrook, Junior 1B, .269, 10RBIs, 5 2Bs, 1HR, 4E, 4DP, 93% FP; Nate Gagnon, Senior, .373, 11RBIs, 5 2Bs, 1 3B, 2Steals, 86% FP, 13Es; Gary Searle, Senior, .314, 8RBIs, 4 2Bs, 7SB, 18K in 24 App
MHS: Scott Kneer SS, .361BA, 11 2Bs, 3HRs, 1 3B, 17RBIs; Corey Strange P, 2.70ERA, 4 W, 65Ks; Seth Loyd, P, 3.30ERA, 46Ks.