The Beginning Of Something Special: Recapping Oak Hall’s Breakthrough 2022 Season

Hamilton: An American Musical came out in 2015 and has established itself as one of Broadway’s most successful productions. The show tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. It features themes of resilience, boldness and believing in something bigger than one’s self. Additionally, during the show’s most popular song (“My Shot”), the titular character Alexander Hamilton refers to himself as “young, scrappy and hungry”. While Oak Hall baseball does not feature much singing or dancing, their program embodies these traits to a tee.

Led by Head Coach Kevin Maris, the Oak Hall Eagles just wrapped up one of their greatest seasons in school history. Despite a season full of adversities and roadblocks, the Eagles finished the 2022 season with a 14-4 record. The Florida Athletic Coaches Association named Maris the Class 2A Coach of the Year. Additionally, Eagles star Jack Kuzmicki was named the Class 2A Player of the Year.

Meeting the Eagles

At the Plate

Jack Kuzmicki

Despite having just moved to Gainesville this past year, Kuzmicki made an immediate splash with Oak Hall. He led the team in hits, batting average, slugging percentage, doubles, triples, home runs and RBIs. Kuzmicki has also served as a reliable starting pitcher for the Eagles. He pitched 27 2/3 innings for Oak Hall in six starts this year, picking up five wins along the way.

Harrison Beach

Kuzmicki has served as the headliner for a talented Oak Hall roster this past Spring. Jackson and Harrison Beach formed a deadly duo in the infield at second baseman and shortstop. They also gave the Eagles offense plenty of sparks at the top of the order; they each finished with an on-base percentage of over .550.

Neil Ruth

In the batter’s box, Neil Ruth and Emory Ezzell provided some fireworks of their own this season. Ruth finished the year with a .491 batting average (the second-highest on the team), while Ezzell knocked in 17 hits in the seven-spot of the batting order.

Brody Beaupre

The Eagles have also seen multiple newcomers blossom for them this year. Freshman catcher Brody Beaupre did not miss a single inning for Oak Hall this season, finishing with a team-high .969 fielding percentage. Additionally, the team’s starting right fielder, Aaron Akins, picked up six hits in the team’s final five games. As the only eighth-grader on Oak Hall’s varsity squad, Akins has already drastically improved over the last few months.

On The Mound

Troy Freeman

Another major key to Oak Hall’s success this year has been its bullpen. Troy Freeman established himself as the team’s ace this year, taking the mound against some of the Eagles’ toughest opponents. Freeman finished the season with a record of three wins and two losses; he also maintained a regular-season ERA of 3.798. Meanwhile, Ethan Szlachetka served as the team’s go-to closer in tight situations. In just 20 1/3 innings on the mound, Szlachetka racked up 29 strikeouts and three wins. Kuzmicki, Ezzell and Jackson Beach also took the mound for Oak Hall this season in multiple starts and relief appearances.

Establishing An Early Brotherhood

The Eagles had their work cut out for them this past offseason. With five new players, the team took some time to judge in their early practices and games. Additionally, some players got a bit of a later start than normal. Ruth and the Beaches are also on Oak Hall’s basketball team, which made a run in this year’s District Tournament. As a result, they joined the team only a couple of weeks prior to their first game.

However, every player had still been putting in work one way or another during the off-season. Even before the team’s official practices began, some of the guys found ways to get some extra training wherever and whenever possible.

“Baseball never really got away from me. I put in some work in the off-season, even during basketball season,” Ruth said. “When I was free, I… found a batting cage and got some work in. When I had someone to play catch with, I played catch with them. I was ready to go right when basketball ended.”

Meanwhile, some of the team’s newer guys had to adjust to a new environment. However, they found the transcription to be smoother than expected. With plenty of friendly faces in the dugout, the team quickly bonded in the weeks leading up to their season debut in late February. Kuzmicki chuckled as he looked back at one of his favorite moments this season that made him feel at home. Some confusion between a couple of teammates led to an unintentional communication “error” and generated some laughs.

Finding Their Rhythm Early In The Season

On February 25, Oak Hall traveled up to Branford High School for their season debut. With the team still gelling together, they got off to a rough start. With the Eagles committing five errors on the day, they ended up taking the loss in a 12-7 outing. However, there were also multiple clear bright spots in the performance. Kuzmicki went 3-for-3 at the plate with four RBIs, while Ruth and Jackson Beach knocked in two hits each as well.

The Eagles put together a much stronger performance in their subsequent game. They ended up taking an 11-1 mercy-rule victory over the Saint Francis Catholic Wolves. The team got a boost with Szlachetka making his season debut, as he went 2-for-2 at the plate with a pair of RBIs. Freeman also bounced back after a lackluster showing against Branford; he allowed no hits and only one run against the Wolves while racking up seven strikeouts.

A Breakthrough Victory Gives The Eagles A Spark

Despite several early postponements and cancellations early in the season for Oak Hall, the team managed to stay hot through the end of March. In one of their most exciting games of the year, the Eagles snatched a win from the jaws of defeat in an 8-7 thriller against the P.K. Yonge Blue Wave. Kuzmicki’s two doubles and three RBIs lit a fire under Oak Hall’s offense. Eventually, Szlachetka’s six strikeouts in a relief appearance on the mound sealed the deal in a massive win for the Eagles.

While Szlachetka did not take the mound for Oak Hall in his freshman year, he did have prior experience on the mound entering the 2022 season. He did his best to stay on his toes at all times and remain prepared to step up for the Eagles at any given moment this season.

“Becoming the closer was definitely a change, but it’s not something I’m entirely new to… I came in for a few closer roles last summer for the [Florida] Hardballers,” Szlachetka said. “I have never been the go-to closer until this season, so I think the biggest thing to adjust to was the fact that I could come into any game at any time in any situation. Just always being ready and keeping the idea that I might pitch in the back of my mind helped me to remain focused.”

Cruising Through Spring Break With Momentum

Oak Hall’s massive win against a talented P.K. Yonge squad served as a major catalyst for the team’s ongoing success. In their next three games, the Eagles clinched back-to-back-to-back mercy-rule victories. In their final game before spring break, Oak Hall took home a massive 16-1 victory against Bronson High School. Jack Kuzmicki had one of his best games of the season to power the Eagles to the win. He secured his first home run of the season while also picking up the win on the mound.

One interesting fact from this season: Kuzmicki finished the season with three home runs. None of them crossed the outfield fence. All three of his homers this year were inside-the-park blasts that Kuzmicki managed to cross home plate on. He joked that he hopes to lose his “home run allergy” next season. However, he also noted that he plans to work on becoming even stronger this off-season.

Twelve days later, another Oak Hall player notched another impressive milestone. This time, it was Troy Freeman, who threw the first perfect game in school history. In a 17-0 mercy-rule victory over Redeemer Christian, Freeman did not allow a single hit, walk or run.

THROWBACK: Troy Freeman takes the mound prior to Oak Hall’s matchup with Redeemer Christian.

The perfect game against Redeemer served as perhaps Freeman’s finest performance in a breakthrough season with the Eagles. Throughout the year, he made some adjustments on the mound but found a comfortable set of pitches he worked with to keep batters on their toes.

“I think my curveball is my real go-to pitch whenever I’m trying to strike somebody out… or my slider,” Freeman said. “They’re different pitches that, on different people, I can use as my go-to pitches.”

Facing Their First Major Roadblock On The Year

After picking up another blowout win against the Eastside Rams, the Eagles were on a roll. Now riding a five-game win streak, they traveled over to Union County High School to face the Fightin’ Tigers. However, it became clear from the get-go that the Tigers were not playing around. After the Eagles gave up five runs in the first inning alone, they had to claw their way back into the game. Despite reclaiming the lead in the fourth inning, Oak Hall ended up dropping the game in an 8-7 extra-innings loss.

However, the Eagles did not let the loss drag them down. They knew they had played a good game. More importantly, they knew they would get a chance to exact their revenge against the Tigers later in the season. Oak Hall and Union County were scheduled for a rematch at Roger Maris Field exactly two weeks after their first meeting. Nonetheless, the Eagles remained focused on the task at hand. With a tight slate of games on the horizon, they reset their sights on their ensuing two games that week.

THROWBACK: Brody Beaupre swings at a ball early on in the game against Countryside.

Sure enough, the Eagles bounced back in dominant fashion. They scored a combined total of 39 runs in their next two games, including a 26-run outing against Countryside Christian. The following week, the Eagles racked up another pair of mercy-rule victories. A 13-3 win against the Trenton Tigers and a 19-1 victory over Bronson gave Oak Hall a four-game win streak. However, no one in the dugout cared about the streak. They were now focused on their rematch with Union County. And this time, they were ready.

Revenge: A Dish Best Served Cold

The rematch between the Eagles and Tigers got off to a chaotic start. With only one umpire able to attend the game, there were several questionable calls early in the game that sent the Eagles dugout into a frenzy. In the first inning, Kuzmicki was called out at second base on a pickoff by the Tigers. The call was met by a frenzy of boos from across the field; Coach Maris even left the dugout and vehemently protested the call. One inning later, Ruth was called out at first base on a ground out. However, it appeared to the Oak Hall dugout that he had made it on the bag safely.

Despite these initial hurdles, the Eagles stayed locked in on the field and at the plate. Freeman threw out seven strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings pitched while only allowing four hits. Meanwhile, Oak Hall managed to snag a run in the third inning off an error from Union County’s infield.

Nevertheless, two innings later, the Tigers responded with a pair of runs to take their first lead of the game. Undeterred, the Eagles picked up a single and a pair of walks to load the bases in the fifth inning.

This set up Ethan Szlachetka for another big moment. On the first pitch he saw, Szlachetka cracked a ball into deep right field that nearly cleared the fence. Szlachetka wound up with a 3-RBI triple that proved to be the dagger for Oak Hall. The Eagles ended up with a 5-2 victory to secure their biggest win of the year to that point.

Multiple players cited the victory over Union County as one of their favorite moments from the 2022 season. Even Head Coach Maris cited a double-play by the Beaches to finish off the Tigers as one of the team’s finest moments this year.

“I would have to say [one of the best moments] was… the big-time double-play, the 360 spin to end the game against Union County here at home,” Maris said. “There’s so many different [plays], but that one wowed me the most.”

Securing Another Crucial Win Against The Blue Wave

Just four days after their win over Union County, the Eagles faced another tough test at home. They once again faced off against P.K. Yonge; this time, however, it was at Roger Maris Field. Home sweet home for Oak Hall. Freeman put the Eagles on the board early in the third inning with a deep bomb into right field. The Eagles took a 3-0 lead following Freeman’s ground-rule double, but it did not take long for the Blue Wave to respond.

The Blue Wave managed to score four runs over the next two innings to hop out to a 4-3 lead. However, Oak Hall once again came through with some clutch hitting in the fifth inning to take control. This time, it was Ruth who stepped up with his heroics at the plate. After Kuzmicki brought Harrison Beach home on a ground ball earlier in the inning, Ruth belted out a ground ball into left field that drove in two more runs for Oak Hall. Two at-bats later, Ruth made it home on a line drive from Brody Beaupre to extend Oak Hall’s lead to 7-4.

While the Blue Wave drove in another two runs in the sixth inning, they were unable to reclaim the lead. After Oak Hall scored another run on a bases-loaded walk, they held on to their 8-6 lead for the rest of the game to secure the W.

Finishing The Regular Season On A Roll

The Eagles went on to win their final two games of the regular season to finish the year with an eight-game win streak entering the postseason. Both wins prompted plenty of celebrations for the Eagles; just for very different reasons.

In their final road victory of the 2022 season, the Eagles overcame a late-game deficit against Trenton in a 5-4 win. After just scoring one run in the first six innings, the Eagles knocked in four runs in the seventh and eighth inning for their only extra-innings victory on the year. One week later, the Eagles blew out Eastside in another 10-0 mercy rule to give Coach Maris his 300th career win.

The Eagles ended up finishing the regular season with a 13-2 record. Additionally, they did not lose a single game at home during this stretch. It proved to be a festive season finale with plenty of celebrations, and plenty of reasons to celebrate.

A Tough Finish In The Postseason

Following the regular season, the Oak Hall Eagles clinched the top seed in this year’s 2A District 4 Tournament. The Eagles took care of their first playoff matchup with ease, clinching a 15-0 mercy-rule win over Peniel Baptist Academy in just four innings.

However, Oak Hall’s momentum came to a screeching halt in the District Championship game. The Eagles faced off against the St. Joseph Academy Flashes, hoping to take home their first Districts title in over a decade. Despite leading for the first five innings, the Eagles fell apart in the sixth inning. The Flashes knocked in seven unanswered runs, and Oak Hall was unable to respond in the subsequent innings. St. Joseph ended up taking home the 2A District 4 Title in a 7-4 win over the Eagles.

A Tough Ending To The Season In Tallahassee

Despite their loss in the District championship, Oak Hall still qualified for the 2022 Class 2A Postseason Tournament. However, they were subsequently paired with the North Florida Christian Warriors for their Regional Quarterfinals matchup. At the time of their matchup, the Warriors were ranked as the 49th best team in Florida. Compared to even Union County and P.K. Yonge, NFC was by far the toughest opponent Oak Hall had to face in the 2022 season.

While the Eagles entered the game as massive underdogs, they managed to hold their own for the first few innings of the game. Oak Hall scored a run off a bases-loaded walk in the first inning and a Kuzmicki RBI single in the second inning. By the end of the third inning, the Eagles still held on to a 2-0 lead.

However, things quickly went south for Oak Hall. After scoring three runs in the fourth inning to take their first lead of the game, the Warriors hit a pair of 3-run homers that essentially sunk Oak Hall’s chances at a comeback. By the time the dust had settled in the sixth inning, the Warriors had clinched a 12-2 mercy-rule victory over the Eagles. At the time of this article’s posting, the Warriors are currently set to face St. Johns’s Country Day in the Class 2A Region 1 championship.

Looking Forward To A Bright Future

(From left to right) Troy Freeman. Ethan Szlachetka. Jack Kuzmicki. Remember their names. Their futures, along with the rest of the Eagles, are as promising as it gets.

With their 2022 season now in the books, the Eagles will look to build on one of their most successful seasons in recent memory. All twelve players on this year’s roster will be eligible to return next year. Kuzmicki, Ruth and Andrew McManis are the oldest players on the team; all three will enter their senior year this fall. The team hopes that their youth and room to grow will come in handy as they get back to work this offseason

“We are all going to have one more year of experience under our belts as we go into next season,” Harrison Beach said. “We are still a young team, and are going to improve even more next season.”

The 2022 season featured plenty of highs and lows for the Oak Hall Eagles. However, one thing was clear from their first pitch to their final out in every game they played: the Eagles never gave up. No matter what. From the Branford Buccaneers to the Union County Fightin’ County Tigers to the NFC Warriors. No matter the score, no matter the opponent, no matter the inning, every single player gave it their all.

The Eagles always play their hearts out, and it shows in their results. They are young, scrappy and hungry. Coming off an already successful season, this team has the potential to be extremely special in 2023. Safe to say, next season, the Oak Hall Eagles will not be throwing away their shot.

“I think we shocked a lot of people. No one expected us to be what we were,” Kuzmicki said. “We really made a statement on who we are, but next year is really one to look out for.”

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a first-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

Check Also

The Rise of Ruth: Analyzing How Neil Ruth Has Made Himself A Household Name In Oak Hall’s Clubhouse

Neil Ruth may have one of the most fascinating nicknames of any high school athlete …