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.” ••