AC Flora coach notches milestone win 26 years after taking leap of faith to move to SC

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Lou Bezjak
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Andy Hallett didn’t expect to stay long when he arrived in South Carolina in the early 1990s.

But almost 30 years later, the A.C. Flora High School baseball coach is still here. And on Thursday night he accomplished a big milestone in his coaching career when the Falcons defeated Irmo, 11-2.

The win was Hallett’s 500th of his career — all of them with the Falcons — and came at the site of his first victory in 1998. A.C. Flora defeated Lancaster 17-7 that night in the Sandlapper Classic at Irmo High School.

“It is a tremendous honor and says a lot about the players who came in here in my 24 years,” Hallett said. “It is very humbling and I will remember it for a long time. I never got into coaching to win games. Just been a product of what we have been able to do here.

“It’s something I am proud of and what we have been able to accomplish I feel very blessed to be able to do what I do considering the fact of how much I love this game.”

Hallett is the second Midlands coach to reach the 500-win plateau this spring. Gray Collegiate boys soccer coach Kevin Heise won his 500th career game last month. Other current Midlands baseball coaches with 500 or more wins include Gilbert’s Ashley Burnett and Pelion’s Barry Fogle.

Hallett, a New York native, is 500-193 in his career with 15 region titles, 16 district titles and six state titles in eight championship appearances.

Hallett also has coached many future college and professional players and started the Forest Acres Classic, one of the top spring break tournaments in the state.

“Andy is on Mount Rushmore as far as baseball coaches in the state,” said Dutch Fork coach Casey Waites, a former Flora assistant. “I have had a couple guys affect my coaching career, but I spent a decade with Andy Hallett. The way I approach playoff games, big games is from Andy Hallett.”

Waites coached under Hallett from 2002-13 before landing at Dutch Fork and led the Silver Foxes to the 2019 Class 5A state championship. He is one of three former Hallett assistants to go on and win state titles. The other two are former Hammond coach Ray Derrick and current Hammond coach Chris Braciszewski, who was part of four championship teams with Flora.

“His knowledge of the game — it seems he knows it inside and out,” Braciszewski said. “You aren’t going to fool him much.”

New York roots, first job

Hallett grew up in Upstate New York, just north of Syracuse, and was a big Don Mattingly and New York Yankees fan. He played baseball growing up and played collegiately at Oswego State, a Division III school in New York. His New York accent still comes out occasionally despite living in South Carolina for so long.

Hallett was a pitcher, and he went 2-1 with a 2.95 ERA in 1993 during his senior season at Oswego. He graduated with a business degree — but his desire was to get into coaching.

Hallett spent time as a pitching coach at Oswego State but was passed over for a few jobs in New York. That’s when he decided a change of scenery was needed. One of Hallett’s college coaches played at Coastal Carolina, so he looked into moving South.

The University of South Carolina offered a master’s program in arts and teaching, so Hallett moved to Columbia and enrolled at USC. in the fall of 1994. The original plan was to get his master’s degree and then head back to New York where his family still lives.

But it didn’t take Hallett long to rethink that.

“When I got down here, I realized I can play golf on Christmas, wear shorts a lot,” Hallett told The State. “It worked out that I stayed here.”

Hallett’s first coaching job was as an assistant for Barry Mizzell at Richland Northeast. The two hit it off and started working together after someone told Mizzell about Hallett.

Mizzell knew Hallett’s stay might not be a long one, as he had head coaching aspirations. Hallett coached at RNE for two years before landing at A.C. Flora for the 1997-98 school year.

“I thought he was a good baseball guy and we hired him immediately,” said Mizzell, who won 480 games at RNE and Blythewood is now the athletic director for the Bengals. “You can tell immediately he knew the game and that is what I was looking for. He was a great addition to our program.

“The Flora position was sitting there waiting for someone to take it over and move it up, and he has done that.”

Building the Falcons program

Before Hallett’s arrival, A.C. Flora didn’t have a great baseball tradition. The Falcons had made two state title appearances with the last coming in 1971. The facilities also needed improvement. There were no lights, bullpen or sprinkler systems, or fences along the sides of the field.

During the interview process for the Flora job, Hallett remembers being asked athletic director Bob Reynolds why they should give him the job.

“I told him we are going to build a championship-caliber program,” Hallett said. “We are going to be the most disciplined and most fundamental team on the field.”

Hallett prides himself in instilling discipline to his teams and having them play with aggressiveness on the basepaths — and for his teams to have a swagger about them. Some of the bravado might rub other teams and fans the wrong way, but Hallett tries not to worry about it.

“We want to be one of the most confident and aggressive teams out there,” Hallett said. “A lot of people misconstrue it as cocky and arrogant. We don’t worry about what others think. We want to be confident and aggressive in everything we do.”

The Falcons showed progress during that first season in 1978, finishing second in the region and making the playoffs. The following year, A.C. Flora jumped out to a 14-0 start and was the No. 1 ranked team in Class 3A but lost its first two games in the playoffs.

Title run begins

The Falcons won their first state championship in 2001 when they defeated Travelers Rest to win the Class 3A title. Flora won another one in 2007 and also made it to championship games in 2003 and 2008.

But the most definitive moment during Hallett’s tenure came when the Falcons won three straight 3A titles from 2012-14. No team above the Class A level had won three baseball titles in a row before Flora did it.

That group included future University of South Carolina players Madison Stokes, Banks Cromer and Everett Eynon, along along with Donald Gillespie.

The second title in 2013 came against area opponent Airport and included a huge comeback in the best-of-three series opener. A.C. Flora trailed 9-1 going into the sixth inning but rallied to win in 13. The Falcons won the next game to sweep Airport and swept Hartsville the following year.

“It was incredible those three years, watching them grow up from sophomores to juniors to seniors. They were a really special group,” Hallett said of the 2012-14 teams. “There were so many of them that played so hard and gave so much to the program. They put us on the map and did something special that no other classification had ever done. It was a great way for them to go out.”

A.C. Flora’s last title came in 2017 on the Class 4A level when it defeated South Pointe. Hallett called that title special because of what was going on off the field. In March of that year, a probe was launched by the S.C. Attorney General’s office into Flora’s booster club and how the baseball program’s finances were spent.

Months later, the Attorney General’s office released a statement saying the investigation “did not reveal any evidence that funds received by the booster club were misappropriated or otherwise misused.”

“It was a hard experience to go through but one of the greatest experiences because we wound up winning state championship number six,” Hallett said. “Throughout all that turmoil, our kids stayed the course, I stayed the course and we were able to accomplish something great with that class.

“I carry a lot of passion for A.C. Flora baseball and this community. The city of Forest Acres has believed in what we are doing with our tournament. They stuck with me when I was a young coach and stayed with me, stayed by my side and followed our program wherever we went. I am grateful for that.”