published: Saturday, January 26, 2013
FRANK JOLLEY | Staff Writer
A new era begins today for the Lake-Sumter State College baseball and softball programs.
Two longtime area standouts have been charged with raising the school's spring sports teams to a new level and both believe they are up to task.
Josh Holt has taken over the LakeHawks' baseball team this year, after six seasons as the program's pitching coach, while Jill Semento hopes to use the lessons she learned as one of the best high-school players in Lake and Sumter County history to turn the softball team into a state power.
From Holt's perspective, the job is a continuation of the foundation laid by his predecessors. Current LSSC Athletic Director Mike Matulia established the baseball program and coached until he turned it over to Rich Billings prior to the 2008 season.
"I'm just picking up where (Matulia and Billings) left off," Holt said. "The set the academic bar high for our student-athletes and required that our players excel on the field and in the classroom. My job is to maintain those standards and create an environment where we expect to compete for state championships. I want to try and help the program become a consistent winner."
Semento believes she is simply putting a new face on a growing program. She is the third softball coach in three years and believes the LakeHawks can show marked improvement over last year's 11-39 campaign in coach Greg Mooneyham's lone season in the dugout.
The LakeHawks will get an opportunity to get off to a quick start today when they open the season with a doubleheader in Winter Haven against Polk State College. LSSC's first home game will be Feb. 2 at 1 p.m. against Polk State.
"I'm not here to resurrect anything," Semento said. "Coach Mooneyham did a great job of recruiting and left some good players here. We're not even talking about the past around here. We had a 15-1-2 record during the fall season. We believe we can hang with any school in the state now.
"Now, we have to go out and build on the successes we had in the fall."
For Semento, the opportunity to coach the LakeHawks was a chance to return home. She grew up in Lake County and attended Umatilla High School. While there, she played for her father, Don, and was a two-time Class 3A All-State first teamer with the Bulldogs.
She was also a Daily Commercial All-Area player of the year.
Following graduation, Semento moved on to the University of South Carolina, where she led the Gamecocks in several offensive categories as a freshman. She repeated the feat in her sophomore year, including batting a team-high .313.
Semento transferred to Stetson University in DeLand for her final two years and had an immediate impact. She was named to the Atlantic Sun Conference All-Tournament team and the conference's All-Academic team.
Despite suffering a knee injury during the summer prior to her senior year, Semento recovered to start on opening day and finished the season with a .300 batting average and leading the Hatters with seven home runs and 29 RBIs. Semento's output at the plate and on the field earned her a spot on the All-Atlantic Sun Conference first team.
"I was coaching at a boarding school in Indiana when (Matulia) called to see if I was interested in the job," Semento said. "It didn't long for me to say, 'yes.' I'm 23 years old and I'm the head of a college softball team. That was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The fact it gave me a chance to move back home made it that much better."
Holt also has deep local connections. He played high-school baseball at Leesburg and earned a scholarship to Flagler College in St. Augustine, where his play earned him a spot on the school's All-Decade team for 2000 to 2009.
Like Semento, this is Holt's first job as a college head coach. He did, however, coach the Leesburg Lightning in its first season -- 2007 -- and led the team to a Florida Collegiate Summer League title.
During his tenure as LakeHawks pitching coach, Holt helped the pitching staff improve each year. In 2008, the team ERA was 6.92. By 2012, the LakeHawks posted a school-best 3.98 ERA. Eight members of the 2012 staff moved on to four-year schools, the most ever in school history.
Holt said the most difficult part of his new job has been running the day-to-day operations. He spends a portion of each day making sure his student-athletes are attending classes and completing the academic work required of them.
"This is a good group of guys," Holt said. "They have the right attitude and demeanor and they're working towards getting their degrees. That's a big deal for us. When I recruit players, I tell them and their parents they will earn a degree while they're here. We don't just bring them into school and leave them alone.
"Our kids realize this and they've worked hard to excel on the field and in the classroom."
Holt said he does not have a victory total in mind for the baseball team, but has stressed that last year's 21-27 record is not acceptable. The LakeHawks will host Polk State College at 1 p.m. Saturday in Holt's first game as head coach. LSSC also hosts South Florida State at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"We take each game, one at a time," Holt said. "I know that's cliche', but that's our approach. On Saturday, we play the No. 1 team in the state, which is also the No. 7 team in the country. That's our only concern right now. If we learn to approach each game like that, I believe we can become one of the top programs in the state."
Said Semento, "This is an exciting time for the softball program. Our players are ready to go and their parents are really behind us. It's a new season and our goal is to win at least 20 games, which I think is doable if we win the games we're supposed to win.
"I can't wait to get started."