PACS baseball making itself at home in Pub’s ‘A’ Division

Phil­adelphia Academy Charter’s Eric Heisler has been a large part of his team’s suc­cess in the Pub­lic League’s Di­vi­sion A in 2014. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Giv­en how far the base­ball pro­gram has come at Phil­adelphia Academy Charter School (PACS) in the last dec­ade, it’s go­ing to take more than a bad game or two for pan­ic to set in for Jack Smith.

Smith is the ath­let­ic dir­ect­or and base­ball coach at PACS, at 1700 Tom­lin­son Road in Bustleton. He’s the only coach the school has had, and he’s evolved the pro­gram from a com­pletely in­de­pend­ent sched­ule to mem­ber­ship in both the PI­AA and the Pub­lic League.

This is the school’s 11th year as an in­sti­tu­tion and its eighth in the PI­AA. The Char­gers star­ted in Di­vi­sion D and “slowly and pro­gress­ively” climbed the lad­der. Now, they find them­selves among the elite in Di­vi­sion A, hav­ing moved up to the top di­vi­sion this sea­son. And des­pite a mid-sea­son three-game di­vi­sion los­ing streak (PACS lost close ones to Cent­ral and Frank­lin Towne be­fore an 11-1 blo­wout last week at the hands of Wash­ing­ton), the team has im­pressed, go­ing 6-3 in its first nine di­vi­sion games.

“This pro­gram is my baby,” Smith said. “It was born un­der me, I helped it grow and watched it trans­form and pro­gress to where it is today. It brings a smile to my face every time I get to the field. We’ve gone from nobody hear­ing of us to be bumped to A; it was a scary pro­pos­i­tion, but we’ve hit the ground run­ning.”

Smith called the high school “still in its in­fancy stages,” so it’s re­mark­able to see how far pro­grams like PACS and Towne have come in a short peri­od of time. Since charter schools rely on a lot­tery pro­cess to ad­mit their stu­dents, Smith hasn’t really had any way of know­ing who would be show­ing up for try­outs. PACS tops out at about 500 stu­dents, so it’s a small school in the scheme of things.

“We draw mostly kids from blue-col­lar, work­ing class fam­il­ies,” Smith said. “The lot­tery ham­strings us a bit; we can’t go out and say we like this kid so let’s bring him in. We have a feed­er grade school, and about 60 per­cent of our stu­dents come from there. As coaches, it’s up to us to get over there to see what we have be­fore they get snatched up by oth­er schools. We look for hard-work­ing kids on the field and in the classroom. Not be­ing able to hand­pick the kids lim­its who we can bring in, and they know if they don’t live up to the pres­sures of the classroom, then they won’t play.”

The team has just three seni­ors, and two of them, Eric Heisler and Trav­is Zink, are four-year play­ers. Oth­ers Smith singled out were ju­ni­or An­thony Pick­ens and sopho­more Shane Mc­Grody, who, along with Heisler, “Em­body the philo­sophy I preach as a coach,” Smith said. “They will do any­thing asked of them. They’d run through a wall if that’s what it took.”

A sense of pride em­an­ates from a pro­gram like PACS, mainly due to the fact that these play­ers are writ­ing the team’s his­tory in real time. They have ex­per­i­enced all of the ups and downs to­geth­er, from toil­ing in lower di­vi­sions, to five straight di­vi­sion wins to open 2014, to los­ing four of their last five games over­all. 

PACS did re­bound from the loss to Wash­ing­ton by throt­tling Frank­lin, 11-1, on April 25. The Char­gers have three di­vi­sion games to play, and while already guar­an­teed a play­off berth, Smith is hop­ing to crash the play­off party as op­posed to just be­ing a wall­flower.

“I know we aren’t as es­tab­lished as every­one else,” he said. “For us, it’s grat­i­fy­ing to com­pete against these teams. We’re 11 years old. So to be able to com­pete with these pro­grams that have a wealth of his­tory, just step­ping on that field brings a smile to my face. And I know my kids en­joy it. When they first came, they were in the base­ment of Di­vi­sion C; now we have a chance to knock some of these top teams off.”

And while PACS may not be Pub­lic League fa­vor­ites, they also shouldn’t be over­looked. Why not us, Smith won­ders?

“In Di­vi­sion A, any­thing can hap­pen,” he said. “For us, it’s about peak­ing at the right time. We need to get to the ba­sics of base­ball. We need all nine on the field to be on the same page. And ul­ti­mately, that falls on me to get that men­tal­ity back.” ••

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