When Andy Hallett was hired to take over the A.C. Flora baseball program in 1998, little did the 28-year-old Upper State New York native know that the rebuilding project would include a major makeover of the baseball field itself.
“It was, basically, a little goat track,” said Hallett, laughing at the memory. “There were no lights, no press box, no fences down the lines, no bullpens, no place for fans to watch the game from behind the plate, little 15-foot dugouts and trees that were overhanging the outfield fence by a lot — 30 feet at some spots. It was a mess.”
The product on the field also was in need of an overhaul.
“It’s not that there were no players here, but they didn’t know how to be players,” Hallett said. “The first thing we did was to start an offseason weight lifting program in the early morning. We installed a disciplined structure. Before, guys came out to practice in cutoff shorts, cutoff shirts and no hats. It was like they were on the team just to be on a team and maybe work on a tan. We had to change the culture.”
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Hallett, his players, parents, alumni and generous volunteers joined forces to transform the school’s physical plant in phases. The first improvements included lights, new dugouts, bullpens, a new scoreboard, a new outfield fence and the trimming of trees. A sprinkler system was added in the second year. The pressbox/canteen/locker room building, a retaining wall and a seating area behind home plate were in place by 2005, as was the large multiple-use building down the right field line that is used by the school and the city of Forest Acres.
The Falcon Field trademark high outfield fences also came into place around the same time.
“It’s fun to look back and see how far our place has come since the beginning, and we’re still not through,” Hallett said. “Adding the sprinkler system was a big step to making it a passable baseball field. What we have now is a source of great pride to our program and our community because it’s been developed through the efforts of hundreds of people. I think it’s fair to say Falcon Field is one of the best home field advantages in the state.”
Nice facilities are one thing, but having a good product to display is another.
The Falcons, however, did not take long to find success under Hallett. After a 14-13 start in 1998, the team raced to a 14-0 start in the second season and finished the regular season 23-2 and ranked No. 1 in Class 3A.
“We won a playoff game that first year, and we got off to a great start in the second season,” Hallett said. “But we also got a little too cocky and went two-and-out at home in the playoffs. Looking back, those early years were a great learning experience for everybody, including myself. We started to learn how to win, but we also realized that we then had to learn how to win at a higher level.”
The breakthrough came in 2001 when the Falcons went 29-5 and won their first state championship.
“The seniors on that team were sophomores when we were still learning what it took to get to the top,” Hallett said. “After that, it was an easy sell.”
Flora was won 354 games in 16 seasons under Hallett, winning four state championships and advancing to the championship series six times. The 2007 championship team featured an outstanding senior class headed by Logan Munson, who was named the program’s first 3A state player of the year.
But of late, the Falcons have taken it to another level — claiming back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013 — and have enough returning pieces to make a 2014 run at becoming the first team in nearly 50 years in either of the top classifications in the state to win three consecutive titles.
The most recent three-peat was by North Charleston, which ruled 2A (the second largest classification at the time) between 1965 and 1967 under coach Pete Ayoub, who later became the commissioner of the High School League.
“The 2012 team was unusual because there were four sophomore and one freshman starting,” Hallett said. “A team that young usually doesn’t win a state championship. But both teams had the ability to play great when greatness was needed.”
The 2012 stars included senior leaders David Houser, Player Loving and States Clausen. The 2013 team rode the pitching of Matt Wallace, who went 18-0 combined in his junior and senior seasons, and the clutch hitting of Donald Gillespie in the playoffs.
The Falcons made a habit of come-from-behind wins in the 2013 playoffs, including a 10-9, eight-inning win against Airport in the first game of the state championship series. Flora was trailing 9-1 entering the bottom of the sixth inning.
“That was a dream rally, but our kids have bought into the approach that we play out every inning, every at-bat no matter what the situation or score,” Hallett said. “Those comebacks were a tribute to our kids’ commitment to the way we want to play the game.”
Hallett is not afraid to go against the grain. For instance, he used Wallace in a hybrid role as a senior — using him in relief and in spot starts.
“That way, I got more quality innings from my best pitcher,” he said.
Hallett also likes to put his best hitter in the leadoff role with no regard to the speed factor.
“I want my best hitter to have four or five at-bats,” he said. “I’ll trade that for speed on the bases any day.”
Hallett was content to play for the home run when the old metal bats made virtually every player in the lineup a power threat. With the introduction of the new style bats, he immediately switched over to small-ball theory.
“It’s all about adapting to the talent on hand and the circumstances of the game,” he said. “Fortunately, the kids have always been on board for whatever we decide is best for the team year by year.”
Success starts with talent, but few Falcons from the Hallett Era have been big-time recruits. Munson (South Carolina) and Houser (Tennessee) are two exceptions.
Surprisingly, Hallett has yet to see one of his players sign a professional contract.
“A number of guys have been drafted (out of high school), but so low that the money didn’t make sense for them to give up their college scholarships,” he said.
Houser, a rising sophomore catcher at Tennessee, might turn out to be the second Flora graduate to get a pro shot. The first, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was Phillip Watson, who went 5-4 as a pitcher in two seasons in the low minors in the Texas Rangers system in 1976 and 1977.
“We’ve built our success on a bunch of good high school players that work hard and understand their roles on a team, not elite talent,” Hallett said.
“We’re proud of who we are.”