Morales brings state title firebrand to Fleming Island

By Mike Zima Correspondent
Posted 3/2/23

FLEMING ISLAND - A 5-1 loss to visiting Providence on February 24 did little to dampen the enthusiasm for this season at Fleming Island, the first under new head coach Gilbert “Gil” Morales. …

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Morales brings state title firebrand to Fleming Island


FLEMING ISLAND - A 5-1 loss to visiting Providence on February 24 did little to dampen the enthusiasm for this season at Fleming Island, the first under new head coach Gilbert “Gil” Morales.

Morales, one of the most successful baseball coaches in Northeast Florida history, comes to the northern Clay County school after a one-year stint at Pedro Menendez in St. Augustine. He has won four state titles as a head coach— three at Eagle’s View Academy and one at Trinity Christian. Fleming Island Athletic Director Travis Cunningham is thrilled to have secured a coach with Morales’ pedigree, especially since the Golden Eagles were unexpectedly left without a coach at the end of last summer. Cunningham had hired former professional baseball pitcher Andy Toelken in late June, only to have Toelken withdraw from the position a few weeks later. With most viable candidates having accepted other positions, Cunningham was in a bind.

“We are very excited to have Gil,” said Cunningham. “The choice was a no-brainer. He is very detailed, and has a complete vision of what he wants to do with the program, from the way the playing field should be to the way the locker room should look and how players should be.”

Cunningham said that he hopes to have Morales, who is only in his upper forties, for many years.

For his part, Morales jumped at the chance to build a program at a school he feels has a lot of potential.

“One of the hardest things to do at a private school is to build a community, since all the kids come from different places,” said Morales, who has spent all but one of his 21 years of coaching at private schools. “Fleming Island is already a community.”

Morales also cited the ability to spend more time with his children by living in Fleming Island as an additional motive for making the move.

Friday’s game against Providence, which boasts five players committed to continuing their careers at colleges or junior colleges, was a stiff test for the Golden Eagles.

Brett Dennis, who will be playing for the University of North Florida next year, hand-cuffed the Golden Eagles for four and two-thirds innings, allowing no runs while scattering six hits. The 6’1” senior also had two hits, including a two-run double that broke a scoreless tie in the third inning.

The Stallions scored all of their runs with two outs, while the Golden Eagles had hits in the first five innings and left two men on base in the third, fourth and fifth innings without scoring. Fleming Island totaled eight hits, just one less than Providence had.

“They had two or three timely hits with two outs,” said Morales. “When we had men in scoring position, we did not get that timely hit. And that’s baseball.”

Fleming Island’s Danny Sakowski matched Dennis with scoreless frames in the first and second innings, but ran into trouble in the third. Stallions’ catcher Ben Barrow doubled down the left field line, moving Andrew Johnson, who had lined a single under the glove of Fleming Island shortstop Gavin Billingsley, to third. Dennis drove in Johnson and Barrow with a double to left field, and scored when Nove Masci singled on an 0-2 count.

The three runs were the only runs allowed by Sakowski, who struck out five in four and two-thirds innings.

“I thought he did great,” Morales said of his senior lefthander. “He missed a couple of locations in the wrong moments, but he has three pitches and I am really excited for what he is going to do this season.”

Providence tacked on two insurance runs off of Fleming Island reliever Shane Upton in the sixth to take a commanding 5-0 lead. After a 2-2 pitch that had the Fleming Island defense walking off the field thinking it was strike three was called a ball, James Wells singled between Billingsley and Golden Eagles third baseman Ben Abram to drive in Jimmie Broughton, who had started the rally with a two-out walk. Then Waz Rollings, a Daytona State commitment, singled to drive in Mason Wortmann, who had been hit by a pitch.

Fleming Island scratched out a run in the seventh when Abram led off with a walk, moved to second base on a wild pitch and to third on a passed ball. The next pitch from Ryan Walls, who had relieved Dennis in the fifth inning, was in the dirt and bounced just far enough away from Barrow to allow Abram to slide in safely.

Senior catcher Jackson Mercer had two hits for the Golden Eagles, earning praise from Morales.

“Jackson has been working really hard, and literally just last night we made adjustments [to his swing],” said Morales. “We have been telling him to shoot through the middle, and tonight he did that.”

Billingsley also had two hits for Class 6A Fleming Island, which lost its first game of the year after opening with victories over Class 4A Tocoi Creek and Class 6A Nease.

“For us to start 2-1, I am happy with it,” said Morales. “If the players learn the system and we continue to do what we are doing, then we are going to be very tough to beat at the end of the season.”

Class 3A Providence improved to 3-0.


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