Like most sports in America, there is a steep drop-off in the number of players who make the transition from high school to college athlete. Baseball is no exception.
Senior Kyle Phillips thought he would become part of the 89 percent of players who stop playing baseball after high school. But with some luck, sacrifice and grit, Phillips worked his way onto USF’s roster and has earned preseason all-conference honors.
The process of getting where he is today wasn’t easy.
“High school was really good,” Phillips said. “I was on JV (junior varsity) my freshman and sophomore year, then played right field my junior year. I moved to center field my senior year, then moved again to shortstop.”
Even with what Phillips described as a good senior season, he didn’t receive much college attention. He didn’t commit to play at any school and decided to enroll at Santa Fe College in Gainesville.
He got a job valeting at Shands Hospital near campus and took on a full course load as a freshman at Santa Fe. In his first week of classes, he met Matt Quicuti, a member of Santa Fe’s baseball team.
“I was in my career development class and the professor told us to meet everyone around us,” Phillips recalled. “The kid to my left was Matt Quicuti. We ended up talking and he said he played baseball for Santa Fe and I told him I played baseball growing up. He said ‘we have a walk-on tryout this Friday,’ so I went and signed up for the walk-on tryout.”
Phillips remembers that he had a mediocre tryout. The first day got rained out, but he still got to hit some batting practice in front of coaches. He ended up getting through the tryout and making the fall team. Phillips was the only walk-on player who stayed with the team through the whole process, all the other walk-ons were cut.
With the excitement of making the team, Philips knew he had a decision to make. He still had his valet job and his courses. He wouldn’t be able to juggle all three.
“What really made me decide that I wanted to keep playing baseball was after I made that fall tryout,” Phillips said. “Because my mindset was that I was going to hang up my cleats, I was working a job, I was in school, getting in a rhythm trying to figure out what I was going to do. Then I made that tryout, made the team. Now, I’m like ‘alright I’m giving it one more shot.’”
He quit his job and dedicated his time to baseball.
Phillips’ mom is one of his closest friends. Laura Phillips remembers when her son made the decision to keep playing baseball.
“I was ecstatic that he wanted it,” Laura said. “I’ve always thought that he belonged out on a baseball field and it kind of made me sad when he didn’t think that he was going to continue on.”
Phillips made the Santa Fe Saints’ team as a walk-on but that didn’t guarantee any type of playing time.
“I didn’t start from the beginning but something happened and our right fielder got pulled out and I went in,” Phillips said. “I had a couple of hits and then I didn’t get pulled for the rest of the season from right field.”
In Phillips’ first year at Santa Fe, the Saints went on to dramatically win the 2016 FCSAA (Florida College System Activities Association Athletics) Championship, earning themselves a spot in the JUCO (Junior College) World Series where they lost in the first two games.
Santa Fe is considered a JUCO program. In these programs, athletes play on the team for two years before transferring to a new school, typically a Division-1 program.
“I personally didn’t have that physical profile that draws in guys after my first year like some freshmen do,” Phillips said. “They’re a bit bigger and drawing more eyes.”
Phillips was listed as 5-foot-9-inches and 160 pounds as a freshman at Santa Fe, now he’s listed as 5-foot-10 inches and 175 pounds. After his first season with the Saints, Phillips decided to put more work in the gym.
“I got bigger, stronger faster and really committed myself to the gym,” he said.
One of Phillips’ teammates from Santa Fe, Rob Hanlon, took notice of the extra work.
“He was easily one of the hardest workers on our team, both on the field and in the classroom,” Hanlon said. Phillips made the state all-academic team both years at Santa Fe.
Phillips got into a routine of doing the workouts and practices with his team and would go do his own workout later in the day on his own.
“It’s almost always just me,” Phillips said. “Even on road trips, I’d get free weekend passes online and I’d Uber from the team hotels to the gyms, which was pretty fun to see the different gyms across the nation.”
The workouts paid off. Phillips finished his sophomore year at Santa Fe batting .305 with seven home runs and 31 RBI, earning him a spot in the JUCO all-star game where Division-1 coaches and scouts were looking for players to add to their teams.
One of the coaches in attendance when Phillips hit a home run in the showcase was then-USF head coach Mark Kingston, who just happened to be sitting a few rows away from Phillips’ mother and aunt.
“Coach Kingston was sitting a few rows in front of us and as the showcase was finishing up, we walked past him and my friend saw his hat and said: ‘Go Bulls’ and then she said ‘Not for nothing, but that was my nephew that just hit that home run,’” Laura recalled.
As it turns out, Phillips had already been talking to Kingston about transferring to USF before the showcase. He wanted to go to a school that was closer to his mother.
“My mom is a big part of coming to games,” Phillips said. “I had some really great out-of-state programs that liked me, but coming to USF made it possible for her to come to every single game and she has yet to miss a home series.”
Phillips’ mother described herself as a “diehard baseball mom” and has been watching Phillips play since he was 5 years old.
Phillips transferred to USF after two years at Santa Fe. Now he was part of a nationally-recognized Division-1 program. With it came some changes.
“The biggest change when I got here was the approach to the game,” Phillips said. “In JUCO, you know who is pitching and it’s sometimes random guys left and right, but here we have stat tracks on guys.”
Phillips and other players at USF have access to other pitchers’ tendencies. Will they be worked inside or outside while up to bat? When will the pitcher throw a curveball?
“I never thought I would care about that stuff when I was in the batter’s box, the little percentages,” Phillips said.
At USF, with its higher-quality amenities for athletes, Phillips is still able to sustain his workout routine. At Santa Fe, Phillips didn’t have a hot tub or a cold tub or the same treatment that is available to athletes at USF.
“He likes to get extra work in, we tell him he needs to get a few extra calf-raises in, but he likes to lift and that’s part of the success he’s had,” coach Billy Mohl said. “He’s not a very big guy, so he’s got to be strong and he puts in extra time and effort to make sure he stays that way.”
In his first season at USF, Phillips batted .333 with 22 RBI and 5 home runs. He didn’t commit a single error in the outfield, with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.
Now, Phillips finds himself in a familiar situation. At the end of his high school career, he didn’t know if he’d be playing baseball at the next level. Four years later and he’s having the same thoughts.
“I’m not going to slack off just because I had a good year last year,” he said. “This year might be my last year playing baseball, so I’m going to do everything I can to make it a good one. Hopefully, some guys can look up to me and follow suit.”