“Defense wins championships” is a cliché often overplayed like a broken record, but rarely practiced or perfected.
Melbourne Central Catholic’s defenders on the diamond have bought into the concept and, as a result, extended a baseball postseason run their school hasn’t seen in nearly two decades. Ian Fox’s development at first base and A.J. Smith’s senior season on the mound have lifted the Hustlers into elite company.
“I’ve put in a lot of work with Coach. I’ve been here for four years, and I really have to give credit to him for everything that I’ve done,” Fox said. “When I started playing here, I was not a first baseman and he put me there.”
MCC head coach Tom Dooley considers Fox to be one of the best defensive players at his position during the coach’s 25-year tenure, despite the position change. Committing only two errors this season, Fox’s game-changing defensive ability stopped at least two more runs from scoring and provided the Hustlers momentum during a jam in the Class 3A regional final, an 11-2 win over Tampa Prep.
“(Ian) just has a knack for making the play, especially with balls in the dirt. He handles any throw over there,” Dooley said. “In the regional final, out of nowhere, you see him dive (head first) and make the catch. That’s probably the play of the game.”
MCC’s first baseman is 35-for-70 (.500) with a team-high seven home runs and 36 RBIs as well. He also has the second-most doubles on the team, with eight.
Smith’s experiences, meanwhile, have developed him into one of Brevard County’s top pitchers after battling the pressure early in his high school career.
“(Smith) has had a great career. In terms of his mental makeup, he’s pretty much been the ace since his sophomore year,” Dooley said.
Smith’s decorated prep career consists of a First Team All-Space Coast pitcher selection last year and an honorable mention as a sophomore.
“When I’m on the mound, it’s me and the catcher. There’s nothing else that comes in my mind. I feel comfortable out there and (pitching) comes naturally,” Smith said.
“My curveball has a lot of people swinging and missing. That’s what helped me the most this year.”
MCC’s ace has posted a 12-1 record with three shutouts. He has an ERA of 0.85 with 85 strikeouts and eight walks in 821⁄3 innings this season. However, it’s Smith’s pace of pitching that has his team focused and ready to make defensive plays on the diamond.
“He pitches at a great rhythm and guys like to play behind him,” Dooley said.
“If you have dinner reservations, A.J.’s the guy you want on the mound.”
Class 3A semifinal
1 p.m. — Melbourne CC vs. Florida Christian at Fort Myers