High School Sports

Orange Park Raiders Baseball: If You Build It They Will Come

todayMarch 17, 2022

Background

By James Critch

The Orange Park Raiders sports program has been primarily focused on football and basketball for many years and baseball has all but fallen to the wayside. To generate interest in a fading program the school needed someone with a passion for baseball and their players as well the ability to rebuild a dying program. Enter George Eldridge.

Having played basketball, football and baseball in high school Coach Eldredge passed his love of sports onto his two sons and when his boys became immersed in baseball, Eldridge followed suite. Their love for the game encouraged Coach George to get into coaching 21 years ago which allowed him to be a part of their journey.

When George’s sons playing days ended Eldridge’s love to be on the diamond and share his passion to other up and coming players did not wavier. Eldridge spent time at different schools during his 21 years of coaching. In 2009 he experienced his best season to date while at the helm for Paxson where they reached the state semifinal. Orange Park is hoping for a similar result in the near future.

Eldredge is in the process of revamping the baseball program at Orange Park and is doing so with little more than a dedication to the players that are currently at the school and those that will be there in the future. With a limited coaching staff that includes Eldridge who is in his second year at Orange Park, Steve Adams, Dalton Riley who is in his first year at the high school level along with Alex Oakes who graduated from Orange Park two years ago. These coaches are not only dedicated to instilling a winning attitude into their players but also creating a park to have pride in. Reaching into their own pockets at times to make some improvements such as: rebuilding the batting cages that were rusted and falling apart, finding sponsors to help get windscreens added to the outfield fences, contacting local lawn specialists to start an improvement program to bring the fields back to a safe and playable level, tearing out the interior of the locker room and rebuilding and painting it to create a home away from home feel for the players along with making cosmetic improvements to the overall ballpark.

With players graduating from school including two players that went onto college, pitchers Ashton Miller and Nick Perry, the coaching staff realizes they have an uphill battle following last season’s 7-16 record. But Eldridge has confidence in players that have shown growth while in their program and feel players such as pitcher/short stop Josh Taylor(SOPH), pitcher and all around utility player Cody Bowyer(SNR), Tavien Wilkerson, who is also a football player for the Raiders, centerfield(SNR) and Raider wrestler Tyson Cruz at third base(SOPH) are players to build around and help set a foundation for the future of the program.

Now that the season is underway Eldridge realizes the Raiders will face tough competition such as Fletcher and Oakleaf(lost 16-0) but the coaching staff have set expectations that their goal is to win 15 games and advance to a District tournament. A tough task but if the players play every game to their ability, Eldridge believes the team can make strides and reach these goals. “They have to keep themselves in the games and make plays when they present themselves” preaches Eldridge.

According to Eldridge the toughest obstacle to overcome right now, as the coaching staff try to change the culture at the school and within the community about Orange Park Baseball, is keeping enough players on the field/roster. Going into the season opener the plan that was forced onto the staff due to

a low number of interested athletes at the school, is to play a Varsity schedule with 17 players. This will force players to stive for excellence if they want to win games and hopefully encourage other players to come out and play ball. The staff realizes this is going to be easier said then done but Eldridge believes with the number of young players on the roster along with the JV players waiting on deck this will create a winning culture in the future.

Playing baseball and turning the kids into the best ballplayers they can be is a top priority for any coach, but the staff also preaches education to the players under their watch. Eldridge feels “Baseball is a great expectation seter for the future for these players. If they are not willing to do the small things on the field and in the classroom, this will negatively impact them in the future when they get into the world of work”. Helping the players reach their full potential on and off the field is something that Eldridge has made a priority since his days at Paxson. “In 2009 we were able to help 5 players obtain scholarships and even though their baseball career may have ended after those four years, getting the players into college will help them in the future no matter where their path takes them”.

Eldridge and his coaching staff believe in coaching the right way, pushing the players to get their education and are creating a new culture within the school about the game of baseball the way they want their players to play the game: have passion, have a desire to win and always strive for excellence.

Good things are on the horizon for the Raiders. It starts with a trust that Eldridge can build a successful program in a community that is saturated with ballplayers. If he does so, They will come….

Written by: Dylan Ryan


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