Outside of the Newberry High baseball program, not many could have predicted the kind of season the Panthers would have.
A 5-4 start last season before COVID-19 shut down the 2020 season didn’t exactly set the tone for 2021, but the Panthers knew they had something special brewing.
“Going into my junior year, we knew we would win state and after having our season shut down, we knew we had to get it done this year,” Justen Crews said.
From an early age, Crews started playing baseball where he began forming relationships with teammates well into high school.
“I started playing tee ball at 4, at the YMCA old fields on Archer, I hit my first inside-the-park home run there,” Crews said. “I grew up with Makai (Johnson) since tee-ball, Kaleb (Compton) since 9, Logan (Carlisle) since I was 9 and James Turner since elementary school.”
It was also when he met his future high school coach Mike Spina as well.
“I have played with Spina on Florida Elite and have always played with him since I was 9-11 years old,” Crews said.
Crews moved up to the NHS varsity team his freshman year and began to see the talent around him.
“Ever since freshman year, always thought we had enough talent to go all the way,” Crews said. “It was hard to get it done, but we had Makai, Luke (Ridley) and a very good squad coming back and then we have the best freshman player in the area in Jayden (Holcomb).”
When ace pitcher Dylan Schaffer was lost for the season with an ACL injury, the Panthers were a little timid but knew there was still enough talent on the staff to overcome it.
“It was a horrible thing for Dylan, but like Coach Spina always preaches, it’s all about the next man up mentality and we had other guys step up like Mason (Tomchak) and Luke,” Crews said. “When Dylan got hurt, there was some doubt among us we would win state, but then we knew no doubt we would win it all.”
“Luke (Ridley) struck out 15 of 18 against Trenton, Dylan threw a no hitter before getting injured against Williston,” Crews said. “He then tears his ACL diving over the fence trying to catch a ball, then with a torn ACL dominated Chiefland throwing a one hitter.”
While the Newberry pitching staff was dominating teams, Crews was doing his own damage at the plate by hitting .584 with 29 RBI, 11 doubles, 1 triple and six home runs on his way to being named the 2021 Gainesville Sun Baseball Player of the Year.
Yet what’s even more impressive is in 109 at bats Crews did not strike out.
“I was Informed after the season by coach, I didn’t know until ¾ year, it wasn’t something I was paying attention to,” Crews said. “I hit a lot of fastballs and I don’t chase a lot, I also didn’t approach it any different with two strikes, maybe just shorten my swing.”
Crews has improved each season, hitting around .318 his sophomore year, .450 his junior year and .584 this past season. He attributes his size and strength and hitting the ball harder for his improvement.
Now he prepares for his next adventure, as he leaves Aug. 20 to attend Tallahassee Community College with teammate and lifetime friend Makai Johnson.
Sun All-Area Baseball Teams
Pitcher: Luke Ridley, Newberry, Senior – The Co-Class 1A Player of the Year was 7-0, with 1.02 ERA, 110 strikeouts, 20 walks in 55 innings, while also hitting .367 with 26 RBI, 7 doubles, 1 triple and 1 HR.
Pitcher: Ryan Brown, Santa Fe, Senior – Two-way standout, 10-1 with 0.20 ERA with 98 strikeouts and 13 walks, while also hitting .279 and 6 RBI.
Catcher: Landon Rodgers, Santa Fe, Junior – .333 batting average, 21 RBI, 7 doubles, 2 HR.
First Base: Whipp Davis, Union County, Senior – Dynamic two-way player hit .350 with 26 RBI, 7 doubles, also 5-1 with 1.71 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 27 walks on mound.
Second Base: Jake O’steen, Union County, Junior – Osteen led the Tigers with .418, 20 RBI, 7 doubles and 3 triples.
Shortstop: Makai Johnson, Newberry, Senior -.494, 34 RBI, 11 doubles, 1 triple and 4 HR.
Shortstop: Ryan Braddock, Williston, Junior – .341, with 23 RBI, 4 doubles, 2 triples, and 1 HR.
Third Base: Mika Rey, Williston, Senior – .405, with 21 RBI, 9 doubles, 1 triple and 1 HR.
Outfielder: Caden Kresak, Buchholz, Senior – .284 with 12 RBI, 3 doubles, while going 3-0 with 0.73 ERA with 58 strikeouts and 34 walks in 47 innings.
Outfielder: Cole Smithers, Buchholz, Senior – .321 with 12 RBI, 6 doubles, 1 triple and 1 HR; also 2-1 with 5.13 ERA on the mound.
Outfielder: Jay Cohen, Union County, Junior – .416, with 25 RBI and 9 doubles.
Utility: Justen Crews, Newberry, Senior – The Co-Class 1A Player of the Year put up video game numbers hitting .584, with 29 RBI, 11 doubles, 1 triple and 6 HR, while also going 3-0 with 2.33 ERA, 35 strikeouts, 22 walks in 24 innings on the mound.
Utility: Landon Gruenwald, Newberry, Sophomore – 5-0 with 0.65 ERA, 36 strikeouts, 8 walks in 21.2 innings, while also hitting .313, 16 RBI and 1 double.
Utility: Zane Starling, Santa Fe, Sophomore – 5-0 with 0.32 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 10 walks, while hitting .275 with 18 RBI, 4 doubles and 2 triples.
Utility: Tripp Davis, Union County, Senior – .350 with 26 RBI and 7 doubles, while going 7-2 with 2.35 ERA along with 75 strikeouts and 22 walks.
Pitcher: Mason Tomchak, Newberry, Junior
Pitcher: Braxton Dukes, Union County, Senior
Catcher: Logan Head, Williston, Senior
First Base: John Rechsteiner, Santa Fe, Senior
Second Base: Greg Falck, Santa Fe, Senior
Shortstop: Devante Mitchum, Santa Fe, Junior
Shortstop: Quinten Rawls, Union County, Junior
Third Base: Maui Schwartz, Eastside, Sophomore
Outfielder: Jacob Guthrie, Trenton, Senior
Outfielder: Ty Glenn, Keystone Heights, Junior
Outfielder: Devan Mitchum, Santa Fe, Junior
Outfielder: Connor Guy, Keystone Heights, Freshman
Utility: Timothy Paul, P.K. Yonge, Senior
Utility: Connor Bechtold, Dixie County, Junior
Utility: Jackson Ward, Lafayette, Junior
Bronson – Ashton Wilkerson (So.), Kasey Weeks (So.), Ke’tron Thomas (Jr.), Carrson Whippy (Jr.)
Buchholz – Noah Hayes (Fr., Jackson Peters (Sr.), Brett Blair (Sr.), Danny Astudillo (Sr.)
Chiefland – Taylor Brown (8th), Jacob Kline (Sr.)
Columbia – Mason Gray (Sr., SS), Bryant Green (Sr.)
Dixie County – Carson St. Laurent (Jr.), Luke Thomas (Jr.), Kolton Hunt (Jr.)
Fort White – Hayden Gustavson (So.)
Gainesville – Colton Kelly (So)
Keystone Heights – Carson Osteen (Sr.), Dalton Hollingsworth (Jr.), Carson Williams (Sr.)
Lafayette – Landen Brock (Sr.)
Newberry – Dylan Schaffer (Sr.), Kaleb Compton (Jr.), Logan Carlisle (Sr.), James Turner (Sr.), Caleb Massey (Sr.)
Oak Hall – Andrew Pickens (Sr.), Harrison Beach (Fr.), Jackson Beach (Fr.), Matt Leber (Sr.), Levent Eldem (Sr.)
P.K. Yonge — Drew Dawson (Jr.), TJ Shay (Sr.), Lane Sparkman (Fr.)
Santa Fe – Dalton Dampier (So.)
Saint Francis – Zak Cetin (Jr.), Trevor Spencer (Sr.), Jack Steen (Fr.), Mason Bell (So.)
Trenton – Mason Smith (So.), Colton Smith (Jr.), Johnny Scott (So.), Sam Bryan (Sr.)
Union County – Manny Covey (So.), Paden Clyatt (Sr.), Eli Rimes (Jr.), Skyler Shatto (Sr.)
Williston – Austin Griffith (Sr.), Talin Sandquist (Jr.), Lowman Kavanaugh (Sr.), Marland Williams (Sr.), Clayton Nessler (Sr.), Colby Casse (Jr.)
Sun Baseball Coach of the Year
Mike Spina, Newberry: Spina, the Florida Dairy Farmers’ 1A Coach of the Year, guided the Panthers to the their first state semifinal since 1979 and the school’s first baseball title. The Panthers ended their season with a 19-game winning streak en route to a 25-1 mark. The Panthers won six in a row before stumbling 5-3 to West Port on March 10. It would be their only loss of the season.
This is the ninth in a series recognizing area high school athletes and coaches competing in the spring sports.