For a team which ended last season on a grueling, 2-1, loss in nine innings in the Region 1-5A finals, the West Florida Jaguars baseball team went into the offseason flying high.
The tough loss at Ponte Vedra did little to dampen the spirits of the Jags, who watched Ponte Vedra advance to the Class 5A state championship game.
Instead, the loss did the opposite. It gave the Jaguars hope and motivation heading into the 2013 season.
So far, the Jaguars have ridden that hope to a perfect 8-0 record overall, and a 4-0 start in District 1-5A play.
“I think the fire is still burning,” West Florida coach Marc Conti said. “They saw just what Ponte Vedra did and we had all the opportunity in the world to beat them.
“We have a bunch of kids back that have the feeling in their heart to beat them this year and get to the final four. We pressed upon them the most important thing is you will have to get through your district first. They’ve dedicated themselves to doing the little things. They do all parts of baseball to get better. It’s really produced results so far.”
That dedication produced big results on Friday, in the Jaguars’ biggest district test so far. Down by six runs against Rutherford on the road, West Florida plated six runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth to rally for the 15-11 victory.
“That just shows that against a good team what you can do,” Conti said. “They could very easily have just rolled over and played dead, and that’s what I thought they were going to do for a while.
“(Rutherford) scored 10 runs in three innings. It’s easy to roll over and play dead. They didn’t do it. They fought back and scored six runs (in the fourth inning) and could have scored more. They didn’t give up, and that’s great for them.”
The 15-run outburst, although desperately needed in that game, was a rarity for the Jaguars this season. For the most part, the Jags have been a low-scoring team, relying on solid pitching and great defense to win games.
“Pitching will always be ahead of hitting early in the season,” Conti said. “The bats are finally coming around. I think this shows what we can do. The biggest thing we learned is you can be down six runs with half the game gone and still come back against a good team.”
Stephen Penrose (3-0) and Davon Laurent (2-0) have been leading the way on the hill for West Florida this season. Ashton Linton (3 saves) has become an invaluable asset in the bullpen.
“Stephen’s the number one right now,” Conti said. “He’s done really well. I’m proud of the way he’s stepped up. I think he’s got a lot of confidence in himself. He’s starting to believe in himself. Over the first part of the year, he’s gotten confidence in himself. He’s a guy, as of right now, if we need to win, he’s the one we need to put on the mound.
“Ashton Linton has helped Stephen the last two games. The righty-lefty thing has really worked for us. (The left-hander Linton) is not really the prototype closer. He’s got a little bit on his fastball, but he has a heckuva breaking pitch. He’s really done well, and he’s really come in and done a great job in that closing role.”
The Jaguars return a good group of position players from last year’s team, but only one of them is back in the same position. Joey Baker is the lone returnee at his same position — first base. R.J. Lewis has slid over from third to short, Reise Bell is gone from third to right and Tyler Wood has come from the outfield to shortstop.
The combinations of moves have certainly paid off for Conti and staff.
“We have a lot of returning players, but very few are in their same position, or even played varsity,” Conti said. “They’ve really come together and worked as a team and done really well.
“They’ve played good defense. And if we can continue to play good defense, throw strikes and make plays in the field and scratch a few runs across, we’ll be OK.”