By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

Mike Bylone is a certified baseball junkie. Yet he’s never gotten a chance to do something every baseball fans wants to do at least once in their life — head down to Florida or Arizona to catch some Major League Baseball spring training game. That’s because for the past 20 years, Bylone has been hitting ground balls to teenagers every March.

He’ll have plenty of time to catch the Phillies down in Clearwater in 2024, however, as on Thursday Bylone — one of the most successful high school baseball coaches in state history — announced he’s stepping down as head coach at St. Augustine Prep. He’s been the skipper of the Hermits for the past 15 seasons, winning more than 300 games, including two state championships, seven South Jersey titles, nine Cape-Atlantic League crowns and three times Prep took home the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic championship. He averaged more than 21 wins per season during his time in those classic Navy-and-white pinstripe uniforms.

“Under coach Bylone’s guidance, Hermits baseball has consistently been a powerhouse, achieving remarkable success year after year. His ability to mentor and inspire young athletes both on and off the field has been instrumental in shaping the character and skills of numerous players, some of whom have gone on to pursue collegiate and professional baseball careers,” St. Augustine Prep Athletic Director Mike Rizzo said in a statement released publicly. “As coach Bylone prepares to step down from his coaching duties, St. Augustine Prep wishes to express its deepest gratitude for his outstanding contributions to the school’s athletic program and the broader community. His legacy will continue to inspire future generations of Hermits.”

“I just thought it was time. I listened to other coaches over the years and they all said, ‘you’ll know when it’s time.’ I never really understood that, but when this past season ended in June, I just started having those feelings. I wanted to go out on my own terms and just felt it was time,” Bylone said. “I spent over a third of my life in this program, 20 years. I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of years, but never any real serious thought went into. This time, I just took a little closer stock of what I wanted, what I wanted to do with my personal life and my family,  stuff like that. I’m. I’m still healthy. I’m still young, I still want to be able to do some other things. For the past 20 springs I’ve been hitting fungoes in March. Now, there might be some other things I want to do.”

This past season, the Hermits went 17-8, won another CAL divisional championship, made it to the league semifinals and lost in the sectional semifinals. The Hermits will return a core that includes outstanding shortstop/pitcher Joey Erace, outfielder Jake Meyers, pitcher Matt Kouser, pitcher John Podgorski and infielder Jack Cappuccio.

Bylone, a 1986 graduate of St. Augustine Prep who went on to play college baseball as St. Joseph’s University, credited two things with providing him with the kind of successful career he never dreamed could happen — great players and playing a tough schedule.

“We’ve been blessed to have some great players come through our program. All told like I had seven or eight kids drafted, about 90 kids playing at the next level, six straight Non-Public A South titles. I don’t think that’s ever been done and I don’t think it’ll ever will be done again in that division. All those things add up,” he said. “On the other side of it, probably more importantly, is just the the young men who have come through. We’ve got some former players who are good husbands and good fathers and good people in our society. Hearing some of the comments from them — sometimes you don’t realize the impact that you’re making until you leave something.”

“Coach Bylone did a tremendous job building a Cape-Atlantic League program that could compete statewide on a yearly basis. His players competed hard every game and you could always count on a tremendous matchup anytime you were facing the Hermits,” said Mainland head coach Billy Kern. “He is a tremendous coach, but an even better friend and colleague. I am thankful to him for bringing me into the Carpenter Cup as a young coach, and always respected the way he carried himself both on and off the field. A true class act. I will miss the Mainland-Prep matchups with coach Bylone each season but I’m sure he will still be a presence in South Jersey baseball.”

Bylone’s Hermits always played a difficult schedule and routinely went up against the state’s best, both in non-league games and in the state playoffs.

“We never shied away from anybody. We played a tough schedule year in and year out. And it wasn’t until I figured that out that we started turning it around. Play a tough schedule and doesn’t matter what your record is — there’s nothing like playing that last game in June,” Bylone said. “You have to prepare yourself for that Some of these kids, it took them a while to understand that and grasp it, that, listen, we’re loading up the schedule. Win, lose or draw. We want to be playing our best at the end of the year and that formula worked for us. I always said they’re not handing trophies out in April or the beginning of May. You have to be playing your best at the end. You take your lumps sometimes, but at the end of the day, you start getting your confidence. We’re lucky that we were the big game for a lot of teams and we did have the bullseye on our back. The more games of those that you play, the more playoff atmosphere games that you play, I truly believe that that prepares you later down the road.”

Bylone also credited a slew of outstanding assistant coaches throughout the years. You don’t win 300-plus games without some help along the way.

“I was blessed to have great coaching staff. My assistant coaches were great and we were all on the same page and I think that’s important,” he said. “I think you need to surround yourself with people who know a little more than you. It’s hard when you first start out when you’re a young coach, we all have egos. But you have to take other people’s strengths to combat your weaknesses, and that’s how you get to get to build something. I think that was the key. I always felt like I gave my assistants the leeway to go about their business.

While Bylone is stepping down as a head coach, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of helping out the Hermits’ program on a part-time basis. He said he’ll certainly miss all the relationships he had through the game, but in the end, family comes first and he wants to be there more for his daughter, an up-and-coming softball player.

“I’m going miss the relationships. I’ve had some good relationships with a lot of the coaches in the Cape-Atlantic League, in South Jersey and even guys from North Jersey, even some guys in Pennsylvania. I will miss that aspect of it, the relationships and just talking baseball. We’re all baseball junkies,” Bylone said. “I just want to spend more time with my family. My daughter’s playing softball and I’m helping her out a little bit and just doing some other things professionally and with my personal life. I’m happy to be able to go out on my terms. I’m not going to say I’ll never return to the bench and some other capacity in the future. I just need to take some time off and relax and get to do some of the things I haven’t been able to do the last 20 years.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays