After non-district play comes to an end this week, Durant, Plant City and Strawberry Crest’s teams will enter the postseason with hopes of making a big run.
This has been a solid season for most Plant City-area high school baseball and softball teams. But in the immortal words of Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, regular-season success “don’t mean a thing without the ring.”
The road to those rings gets trickier to navigate next week with the start of postseason play for both sports. Although the regular season isn’t over just yet — April 24 is the last day of the regular season and several teams still had one game left to play as of press time — we still have a pretty good idea of how everyone looks heading into the next phase of the spring 2021 season.
Durant entered the season with a good amount of hype and, thus far, has lived up to it. The Cougars were an impressive 17-4 (5-1 7A-District 8) on the season and, before Wednesday’s home game against East Bay (results weren’t available at press time), went unbeaten at home with 11 of their 17 total wins. They were a good deal closer to .500 away from home, having gone 6-4, but here’s the kicker: only one of their four losses came by more than one run, and that was to a powerhouse Jesuit team they won’t have to play again.
Durant does plenty of things well on the field. The Cougars can hit (.282 team batting average), swipe bases (72 total) and play defense (.944 fielding percentage). But perhaps the team’s biggest strength heading into the postseason is its senior-heavy pitching staff, which features three starters with an ERA under 1.00 and only two underclassmen — junior Weston Sanchez and freshman Blaine Rowland, who have both been solid through five appearances. The rotation is led by ace Sean Hermann (0.28 ERA, 97 K, 2 ER in 49.1 innings pitched), who was also named to the all-tournament team following the 2021 Saladino Tournament. Zander Fisk (0.54 ERA, 27 K, 3 ER in 39 innings pitched) and Ronnie Galletti (0.67 ERA, 27 K, 2 ER in 21 innings pitched) are also strong options for the Cougars to start games with. Durant has only given up 46 runs on the season and just eight in district play.
The Cougars have been great in district play this year, but there is an intriguing tournament matchup potentially in the works: Newsome (12-9; 4-2 7A-District 8) has found a way to keep things close with Durant in both 2021 meetings, and the two teams split the series with an even 3-3 scoring differential. Neither game was decided by more than one run. But on paper, this Cougars team has what it takes to make a serious playoff run.
The young Plant City Raiders (13-8; 5-3 6A-District 8) have been hot and cold in 2021, but that’s to be expected of a team that has to rely on freshmen and sophomores in key roles.
When this team gets on a hot streak, it can put up big numbers. Eight of its 13 wins have come by four or more runs, including a pair of blowout shutouts at home last week against Armwood (10-0 on April 13) and Tampa Bay Tech (16-0 on April 15). The team’s upperclassmen play the biggest role in dealing damage from the batter’s box as Kelein Johnson, Collin Shultz, Carson Mohler, Ryan Robinson and Jack Brosky lead the way with no batting average lower than Brosky’s .294, all seven of the team’s home runs (Shultz and Robinson have each smacked three and Johnson has sent one over the fence), 26 doubles, 60 RBI, 58 runs and 94 hits. Teams must also keep an eye on speedy junior Anthony Grasso, who leads the team with 11 stolen bases and has scored 13 runs.
The district tourney will put Plant City’s young pitching core (three sophomores and one freshman lead the team in innings pitched) to the test. There’s plenty of potential here, and sophomore Preston Rogers (1.12 ERA, 40 K, 6 ER in 37.2 innings pitched) in particular has built a strong case to earn the title of “ace” for next season. But Strawberry Crest and Leto are tough outs for anybody, and the Raiders have only picked up one win (4-3 over Leto in nine innings on April 6) against either squad this season.
March wasn’t so kind to Strawberry Crest (15-8; 7-1 6A-District 8), as the team lost six of its seven games played between March 16 and April 5. But the thing about the Chargers is that they always seem to find a way to get hot at the right time. Don’t forget that the last time there was a postseason, an SCHS team that finished the regular season with a 13-10 record flipped a switch in late April 2019 and went all the way to the state championship game.
It sure looks like Crest flipped the switch again, recapturing the offensive magic it had earlier in 2021, winning four of its five games since April 6 and outscoring those last five opponents 45-13. The Chargers are armed with one of the best batters in the state: Colby Fanning is in a three-way tie for first place among all batters in all classifications with 36 hits in 22 games (.468 BA), leads all Chargers with 26 runs scored and has also racked up four doubles and two triples. They’ve also enjoyed a breakout season for a pair of sophomores: there’s Arjun Nimmala, who is batting .435 with a team-high 27 RBI and 11 doubles, 27 hits and 22 runs scored in 81 plate appearances, and two-way player Zach Redner, who has a .315 average with 12 RBI and 12 runs scored, as well as a 1.02 ERA and 24 strikeouts on the mound in 13.2 innings of work. Crest is batting .294 as a team and six batters with at least 20 at-bats are batting at least .293 (senior Alex Mussenden, winner of the Saladino Tournament’s 813Preps Iron Man award).
There will be tough competition in the 6A-8 tournament, but if any ball club knows a thing or two about overcoming the odds in the postseason and finding ways to win those high-stakes games, it’s this one. Don’t sleep.
Of all the disappointments created when the 2020 spring sports season was abruptly cancelled, ending Durant’s ridiculously good run and creating a “what if?” scenario for the team was arguably the biggest one.
Fortunately for Cougar fans, the 2021 team picked up right where last year’s squad left off. As of press time, the Cougars were 10-2 overall with a 130-29 scoring differential and won two consecutive games — and seven of their last eight since March 26. Seven of their 10 wins were shutouts, five were by double-digit margins and the losing opponents who did score on Durant combined for a total of five runs (three of which were scored by Bloomingdale on April 6). Fifteen of the 18 Cougars with at least one at-bat are over the .300 mark for hitting and the team has a combined .419 batting with a .514 on-base percentage. They can hit for power, as evidenced in its nine homers (four from freshman Bricelyn Bedenbaugh). They can tear up the base paths with 35 stolen bases (junior Shelby Allen leads the way with 18). They can count on the arm of workhorse pitcher Haleigh Thomas, who has pitched 43.1 of 61.1 innings with a 1.94 ERA and 69 strikeouts against just six walks.
Although both Durant losses thus far were blowouts (16-6 against Robinson on March 25, then 8-0 against Newsome on April 13), the Cougars are undefeated in 6A-5 play and have outscored those opponents 49-1. No one on either the softball or baseball diamond looks as strong heading into district play as these Cougars.
Plant City (4-11; 1-4 6A-District 8) has not had such success this season. The Raiders have allowed nearly 100 more runs than they’ve scored (79 for, 160 against) in 2021 and opened the season with seven consecutive losses — which led to nine losses in 10 games played.
But that’s the same Raiders team that has won three of five games played between March 31 and April 16 and got really comfortable at the plate in those wins, outscoring those opponents 59-12. Plant City tallied just nine hits between 10 batters in a 27-0 win at Kathleen on March 31, but also drew 20 walks. In 16-6 wins over Armwood on April 13 and Tampa Bay Tech on April 15, Brea Simmons went 10-for-10 with eight runs scored, Kelli McAvoy went 8-for-9 with three runs and Lindsey Randall went 8-for-10 with six runs scored as the team combined to bat over .600 in each.
The Raiders’ two losses during this span were 18-0 and 15-0 scores against Durant and George Jenkins, respectively. But now that PCHS has figured out what it takes to get its offense going, perhaps it can score an upset in the tournament.
Strawberry Crest has put together a solid season under first-year head coach Ashton Sparkman, herself a veteran of the program. The 2021 Chargers are 13-5 (2-2 6A-District 5) heading into tonight’s game at Wharton and have been especially good at home, where they’ve outscored opponents 65-19 en route to an 8-1 record in Dover.
This team is great at getting on base (.408 on-base percentage; .318 team batting average) and getting in scoring position from there (40 stolen bases; five players have recorded four or more steals). As with the baseball team, Crest has a sophomore making a big impact on the field: Alexa Ringuette currently leads the Chargers with 25 hits and 24 runs scored in 65 plate appearances, as well as 11 stolen bases. Senior Sydney Watson has also had a great year, batting .435 with 20 hits and team highs in RBI (17) and extra base hits (three doubles, five triples). Opposing teams have also had their hands full with batters like juniors Lauren Ray (.372 BA, 16 H, 10 RBI, 13 R, 2 HR, 3 steals) and Ariana Murillo (.367 BA, 18 H, 15 R, 8 RBI, 2 triples, 4 steals). And on the pitcher’s mound, Crest can count on Watson (53 K), Alyssa Grimes (team-high 89 K) and Hayley Lynch (14 K in 12.1 IP) to strike batters out.
Crest may not be the team most favored to win the district tournament, but it does have enough offensive and defensive skill to threaten the Cougars at a time where virtually every coach ever will tell their teams everyone’s record is 0-0 before every game from there on out.
All statistical and schedule information obtained from MaxPreps.com.