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Competitiveness on and off the field helps Johnny Wiggs build top junior college baseball program at Santa Fe

Johnny Wiggs stands in front of the dugout in the Santa Fe Saints’ scrimmage against TNXL Academy on Jan. 27, 2023. Wiggs is entering his 32nd year of coaching baseball. (Bennett Solomon/WUFT News)
Johnny Wiggs stands in front of the dugout in the Santa Fe Saints’ scrimmage against TNXL Academy on Jan. 27, 2023. Wiggs is entering his 32nd year of coaching baseball. (Bennett Solomon/WUFT News)

Every year before the beginning of the fall baseball season, Santa Fe College baseball head coach Johnny Wiggs holds a ping pong tournament in the baseball clubhouse. It started about a decade ago, according to Wiggs, and the head coach dominated it since it started.

But Brock Edge completed the impossible, defeating Wiggs in 2019 during the second of his two years on the Santa Fe squad.

As a result, Edge, 22, said his head coach didn’t talk to him for two days. Even though he had an impressive .409 batting average during the 2018 season and helped the Saints offensively, Wiggs didn’t care. He was angry.

Wiggs has always been competitive throughout his coaching career. He has begun his 17th season as Santa Fe’s head coach and has recorded over 500 wins with the program.

Those wins include three from this weekend, putting the team at 8-0 to start the season.

Wiggs is in his 32nd year of coaching overall, having spent eight years as head coach with Polk State Community College along with stints as a volunteer coach for Jacksonville University, the University of Florida and Gainesville High School.

Although he has yet to win a national championship, he has won nine Mid-Florida Conference Championships, two FCSAA State Championships and led Santa Fe to the JUCO World Series in 2009, finishing as the runner-up.

“When we bring in recruits here, I say you don’t come here for the large crowd or the fancy facilities,” Wiggs said. “You come here for the great opportunity to get in between the white lines. I want guys who really want to be in the mix, who want to compete, who want to play.”

The competitive mindset started at an early age for Wiggs. He wasn’t a 6-foot-4-inch phenom player, but he played three sports at Mulberry High School in Mulberry, Florida. Growing up with two brothers, his dad force-fed them competition, he said.

During his sophomore year of high school, Wiggs was listed at just 5-foot-6 inches and would eventually reach 5-foot-10 in college. He never passed a scout’s eye test for talent, but the grit and competitiveness drilled in his mind allowed him to pitch at UF and eventually in the minor leagues.

In 10th grade, Wiggs was brought in by his guidance counselor, Tom Fitzgerald, and was asked to give him three goals. Instead of giving college or professional aspirations, he gave three baseball goals.

“I said, ‘I want to pitch for the University of Florida, I want to pitch in the College World Series and I want to pitch in Yankee Stadium,’” Wiggs recalled.

Wiggs began his college baseball career at Valencia College in Orlando before transferring to Santa Fe during his sophomore year. After one year with Santa Fe, he transferred to UF and pitched for the Gators in his junior and senior years. In 1988, his junior year, he helped the Gators capture an SEC Championship and qualify for the College World Series.

During that eventful year, Wiggs received a telegram from Fitzgerald. It read, “Congratulations, you’ve met your first two goals.”

Throughout the process, Wiggs said he used his smaller stature to his advantage.

“A lot of people said I wasn’t big enough to play at the highest level,” he said. “I was not a very confident person off the field. But man, when I got between the white lines and when I got on that mound, that was my sanctuary.”

Compared to Division I athletics, junior college is much different. JUCO programs don’t receive as much funding and equipment compared to Division I programs, and most student-athletes only stay at the school for one or two years before transferring to a four-year program or turning to the pros.

Devin Hemenway, a player on the 2018 Santa Fe team, had experiences similar to Wiggs’ in high school. From Niceville, Florida, Hemenway was also considered undersized and never thought the opportunity of playing at a Power 5 school would come.

But it did, thanks to Wiggs giving Hemenway a chance he never thought he’d get. According to Hemenway, going to Santa Fe was the best decision he’s ever made for himself.

“When I look and try and see what I should be receiving from a person or a coach, I think of him,” Hemenway said. “He’s set the standard for a positive person in my life. His ability to be someone to lean on when you need him is unmatched. I had the highest standard of coaching at my fingertips. I’ll never forget him, and I’m thankful for that.”

Wiggs is a perfectionist. If a pitcher misses a spot on a certain count, he’ll be aggravated but may not show it. However, sometimes he may. He’ll call his players out because he wants them to learn how to be a leader.

Matt Allen played catcher for Santa Fe from 2014-2016, and he vividly remembers Wiggs slamming his clipboard during a game because he wanted him to make a mound visit after a pitcher missed his spot.

“You need to learn how to lead,” he yelled as he walked out of the dugout to the mound, according to Allen.

The intensity, competitiveness and perfection has brought success year after year. Wiggs wouldn’t be afraid to show how excited and proud he was with his players. He’d celebrate with his team, jumping and yelling with them in the huddle after a major win.

In 2018, when the Saints clinched the conference, Wiggs looked into the huddle with his arms on his hips, not looking too excited. Moments later, he threw his hands up over his head and jumped into the pile while his players joined him. Cups of water flew everywhere and eventually he was layered with a bucket of it.

“He was like a little kid,” Hemenway said. “It’s really cool when you get to see somebody that you respect so much and be able to get as excited as you about something you accomplished with that person.”

There’s been one person by his side through the whole ride.

Wendy Wiggs, 57, met Johnny in college when he played for the Gators, but she didn’t know the university even had a baseball team. She said Johnny was the one who introduced her to baseball.

They met at a local restaurant called Diggers Down Under, a spot long gone but located where Piesanos Pizza is now on the corner of West University Avenue and Southwest 13th Street.

Their first date was at a duck pond in North Florida, and she even traveled with Johnny throughout his five-year minor-league career, she said.

The two celebrated 32 years together on Jan. 26. With three girls and a one-year-old grandchild, Johnny has always prioritized family. It played the biggest role in his decisions to stay in Gainesville, despite opportunities to coach elsewhere.

“My family has always been the priority,” he said. “All our decisions were trying to be based upon family. We love Gainesville. We loved raising our daughters here, we thought it was a great community. We wanted to make it our home for good.”

Wendy has seen Johnny go through it all. In 1994, Johnny would wake up at 2:45 a.m. to work for UPS before making the drive to Jacksonville University to coach. He’d get home in the afternoon and head off to bed before the sunset.

Wendy praised Johnny for always being able to balance baseball and family.

“He has done an excellent job as a husband and father,” Wendy said. “Whether he would win or lose, he never brought it home to the family. Even if he lost, he’d be upset over it, but he’d go right into dad mode. That’s something I admire and respect about him.”

Entering his 25th year as a head coach, Wiggs has no interest in hanging up the cleats. He loves the program at Santa Fe and he’s here to stay in Gainesville.

“I’m going to do this as long as I feel healthy,” he said. “I’m real fortunate to go do something that I love every day. To be able to come here and be as successful as we have and to influence that many lives has been something that I’ll go to my grave cherishing one day.”

Bennett is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing