ABINGDON, Va. – Mark Francisco worked in the banking industry for eight years before taking a new direction at Abingdon High School in 2002.
“I always wanted to be a baseball coach,” Francisco said. “Along my baseball journey I’ve tried to absorb knowledge from every coach I’ve had from Little League on up.”
In 2006, Francisco achieved his goal when he replaced legendary Trey McCall as the head coach baseball coach of the AHS Falcons.
Since then, Francisco has added his imprint to a baseball town that has groomed major college talent and generated countless trophies at all age groups.
What is the Francisco method? Think fundamentals, effort and respect.
“Our culture is probably considered old school, but we are most focused on building character in our players,” Francisco said. “Our one goal as a program is to simply be successful, and we define that as doing the best you can to be the best you can possibly be.”
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The process works. Consider that AHS has advanced to three state championship games since 2018, including back-to-back appearances the past two seasons.
“We haven’t been able to win that state championship game yet and that’s disappointing because I’ve wanted it so badly for our players. But I haven’t lost any sleep over those defeats because I know as a program, we have given it our best shot,” Francisco said.
The 2022 season ranks as the masterstroke for Francisco, as he earned Bristol Herald Courier coach of the year honors.
After crafting a 17-0 record in 2021 before falling to Independence for the VHSL Class 3 title, AHS graduated 11 seniors.
Players and fans around far Southwest Virginia dared to hope that the Falcons might be vulnerable with a roster reliant on seven freshmen.
“I knew we had some young talent coming from the junior varsity and I expected us to be competitive, but this group exceeded my expectations,” Francisco said.
Behind versatile talents such as seniors Cole Lambert and freshman Jett Humphreys, the Falcons extended their run of Mountain 7 District regular season titles that dates back to the debut year in the league in 2018.
The fun run for the 25-3 Falcons finally ended with a 6-5 loss to Liberty Christian Academy in the state championship.
AHS has not only won 60 straight games against Mountain 7 foes, but it also hasn’t lost to a team from far Southwest Virginia since a setback to rival Virginia High on April 20, 2018.
Longtime Chilhowie baseball coach and history teacher Jeff Robinson is one of most keen observers of prep sports in Virginia. Robinson has followed the success story at AHS, and he pointed to several common threads.
“Abingdon has always been a hotbed of baseball talent, but Coach Francisco has been able to take that tradition to another level,” Robinson said.
According to Robinson, the baseball dominance in Abingdon starts as the grassroots level.
“I have seen a complete buy-in from the community and the feeder programs during Coach Francisco’s tenure,” said Robinson, whose family has been active in the youth baseball program in Chilhowie. “Abingdon Little League has taken over as the premier organization in the area, and players hone their skills in travel ball in order to get a chance to make the varsity team at Abingdon.
“A lot goes into producing elite teams year in and year out, and Coach Francisco has certainly been a leader to make those things happen.”
Abingdon has long been ahead of the curve in the travel ball arena, which is rapidly spreading in communities across far Southwest Virginia. The expansive Meadows Sports Complex in Abingdon, which caters to travel ball teams, figures to cement that leadership role.
“The vast majority of our guys play summer travel baseball,” Francisco said. “For those guys wanting to play at the next level it’s a good way to be seen by college coaches, but I’m confident our players will tell you they enjoy high school baseball much better.”
The entire Francisco family knows baseball, with all three of Mark’s sons having collegiate experience. Andrew, who currently coaches at AHS, played at Emory & Henry. Thomas was drafted in 2021 by the St. Louis Cardinals and is playing in their farm system. Luke is a sophomore infielder at Carson Newman.
“We are definitely a baseball family,” Mark said. “My kids basically grew up at the ballpark and love the game. It’s taught them to have a great work ethic and they’ve learned some great life lessons along the way.”
Mark has spent the past 12 days watching Thomas play for the Jupiter based Palm Beach Cardinals who compete in the Low A Florida State League.
“Between Thomas and Luke I’ve been to about 25 games this summer,” Mark said. “Watching all three of my boys succeed on the diamond has been special but I’m most proud of their strong character and faith.”
Since 2014, Abingdon has won more games and crafted a higher winning percentage than any public high school baseball program in Virginia across all classifications.
Another stat is just as important to Francisco.
“The team GPA of our varsity players over that same period has been 3.82, and we’ve had nine valedictorians,” Francisco said. “We believe how you do anything is how you do everything. That culture starts in the classroom, and that has been the foundation for our success.
“I’m probably most proud of seeing so many of our former players who are now successful dads bringing their kids to our games. Seeing their success is the real reward of coaching.”
The baseball adventure for Francisco included playing stints for a couple of successful coaches in Eddie Icenhour at Virginia High and Ray Spenilla at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Many star players have passed through the AHS program, but the basics have never changed under Francisco.
“After losing so many seniors last season, we knew it was vital for us to focus on teaching the most basic fundamentals and our coaches [Adam Abel, Brandon Owens, Andrew Francisco, and Joe Rasnake] did an exceptional job,” Francisco said. “From game one to our final game, the players continued to improve and grow.
“We had an awesome group of guys that played the game the right way and were totally focused on the success of the team. It was just a special season.”
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