Both teams won district championships before advancing through to the regional semifinals.
District tournaments began for Plant City area baseball teams last week, with Durant and Strawberry Crest claiming district titles.
Both teams began their district semifinal matchups on Tuesday as scheduled, before weather forced the games to be halted and moved to Wednesday evening.
In the 7A District 6 semifinal, Durant headed to Plant City looking to clinch their spot in the district final after suffering two losses at the hands of the Raiders earlier in the month. Despite narrow previous results not falling in their favor, the Cougars were able to secure a comeback 6-5 victory over Plant City to advance.
“It’s huge,” Durant head coach Butch Valdes said. “It’s bigger than any other rivalry. You could say that Newsome is our rival, Bloomingdale, whoever. But when it comes to here and it’s a Plant City rivalry, this is the biggest and it always will be.”
On Tuesday, Plant City started junior Adan Longoria against Durant senior Torin Byrnes and the Cougars jumped out in front early as Nick April-Gath led off the contest with a double before being bunted over to third by Avery Cherry and ultimately driven home on a two-out single to left from Noah Morales. But Plant City answered right back in the bottom half of the inning.
After junior Deven Gonzalez reached on an error, a single from Colin Shultz left runners on first and third before a double from Jackson VanDerZee knotted the game up at one. A passed ball allowed another run to score, giving Plant City a 2-1 lead, and a sacrifice fly from Wyatt Fordham tacked on one more as the Raiders took a 3-1 lead. Both teams were held scoreless in the second before lightning in the area, and eventually heavy rain, delayed the contest. As the two teams returned on Wednesday for their 5 p.m. start, Plant City rolled with Longoria on the mound while Durant opted to make a move to sophomore Blaine Rowland.
“That was a simple decision,” Durant head coach Butch Valdes said about the move to Rowland. “When a pitcher’s in a game and they have an adrenaline rush and they throw, that same adrenaline rush isn’t there the same the next day, I don’t care who you are.”
The game remained calm through the third until Durant jumped back on the board in the top of the fourth. Morales started the inning with a base hit, followed by a walk from Gavin Florio to put two runners on. A bunt moved the runners over to second and third when a base hit to right from Rowland scored them both to tie the game at 3-3. Aidan Welsh then reached on an error, leaving runners on first and third, and Devin Suero rolled over a slow ground ball to second that forced Plant City to take the out at first and allow the go-ahead run to score from third.
In the top of the fifth, catcher Dylan LaPointe added one more for Durant with a solo home run to straightaway center, giving the Cougars a 5-3 lead. But Plant City wasn’t done. In the bottom of the sixth, following a leadoff single from Chase Mobley, Longoria came up huge for the Raiders with a massive two-run home run to left center to tie the game once again at 5-5.
After posting two quick outs in the top of the seventh, Durant was able to string together three consecutive base hits to load the bases. Then, with the bases loaded, the go-ahead run just 90 feet away at third, on a full count, Brett Martin was able to draw the walk and push the eventual game-winning run home and give the Cougars the lead back at 6-5.
Across town, Strawberry Crest was already cruising on their way to a district championship appearance in their semifinal matchup against Armwood, holding on to a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the second on Tuesday before it was delayed and ultimately scored in four consecutive innings — with three or more runs coming across in three of them — to clinch a 16-6 victory in five innings.
Six different Chargers hitters posted RBIs on the night, with five of them driving in multiple RBIs, but the charge was led by three each from juniors Alex Philpott and Arjun Nimmala. On the mound, junior Luke Richardson worked three innings and senior Zach Vincent handled the other two.
On Thursday, Durant sealed their third win of the season over another local rival in Newsome to claim their district championship with a 7-5 victory.
After Newsome took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first, Durant exploded in the third inning with five runs to take a commanding lead. Durant added to their lead with one run in the top of the fifth, making it 6-1, but Newsome battled back with two runs each in the fifth and sixth to keep it a one-run game at 6-5 heading into the seventh. Durant tacked on one more insurance run in the top of the final inning but it wouldn’t be needed as the Cougars sealed the win.
Martin and Morales stayed hot for Durant, with both hitters driving in two runs and scoring one as Martin also went three-for-four on the evening.
The same night, Strawberry Crest hosted Bloomingdale where they won their fourth consecutive district championship in walkoff fashion with a 3-2 win over Bloomingdale.
“When I think about our district titles, and we have eight or nine alumni here tonight, they started it and now they’re here to watch it continue on,” head coach Eric Beattie said.
Zach Redner got the start for Crest and Bloomingdale was able to push one run across in the first.
The Bulls reached base with a leadoff single and the runner moved to second on a ground ball and over to third on a pickoff move that bounced away before scoring on a slow roller in the infield. After the lone run, Redner settled in and the Chargers bounced right back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first.
After two walks to open the inning, Nimmala grounded into a fielder’s choice before stealing second to put runners on second and third. With two outs, Eli Vickers roped a single to right field, scoring both runs and giving Crest a 2-1 lead that they would hold until the fifth inning.
Redner would pitch three innings, allowing just two walks, one hit and the lone unearned run in the first before the Chargers made the move to Philpott out of the bullpen. Philpott was strong throughout the evening, escaping each and every threat that Bloomingdale presented with the exception of one. In the top of the fifth, a leadoff double immediately put a runner in scoring position for the Bulls, moving to third on a base hit and scoring on a ground out to short to tie the game at 2-2.
Through the seventh inning the two teams remained even and the game headed to extra innings, but the Chargers would only need one more.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, runners on first and second, Redner came up huge as he went with a pitch down and away to poke a soft single into left field and drive home the winning run.
“They want to win, they’re competitive kids,” Beattie said. “They want to win and in situations like these sometimes it’s better to be competitive than to be good and they’ve got both. Bloomingdale is a heck of team over there, they beat us twice pretty good this year but we stuck with it and the guys really wanted to win.”
Returning for their regional quarterfinal matchups on Tuesday, Strawberry Crest was able to knock off visiting Land O’ Lakes with a 4-3 victory while Durant shut out Sarasota with a 4-0 win of their own.
Redner once again got the start for Crest as the Chargers were able to put up one run in four consecutive innings to outlast the visiting Gators.
Crest got the offense going in the second as Ethan Pues singled, followed by a double from Vickers to put runners on second and third before Damien Bennett drove home the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly to left. In the third, Crest was the beneficiary of a little good luck as Pues roped a two out line drive to left, with runners on first and second, that was dropped, allowing pinch runner Lance Highsmith to come around and push the lead to 2-0.
In the top of the fourth, Land O’ Lakes fired back. Back-to-back singles put two runners on, moving to second and third on a passed ball with no outs. An infield single scored one — leaving runners at the corners in what was now a 2-1 ballgame — and during the next at bat Nimmala broke to second as the runner took off looking to steal second and a base hit went through the vacated left side to tie the contest at 2-2 and put runners on first and third. To push one more run across, Land O’ Lakes sent their runner from first and the throw down from catcher Bennett was cut off early and thrown home to try and catch the runner from third looking to score, but the throw was off line and the Gators took their first lead of the night at 3-2.
In the bottom of the fourth, Ray Allen Vasquez led off the inning with a base hit, was bunted over to second by Bennett and driven home Philpott on a single to left field. Then in the fifth, Nimmala reached with a two-out single, stole second and Pues got his second RBI of the contest with a single to right, giving the Chargers a 4-3 lead that they would hold on to.
Redner pitched into the fourth inning, Richardson took over and pitched into the sixth inning and after back-to-back two-out hits from Land O’ Lakes, they pushed Crest to make another move to Philpott out of the bullpen. Philpott ended the threat with a strikeout and closed the door in the seventh to end the contest and secure the championship victory.
For Durant, the result was never in much doubt. Martin once again proved clutch with a two-RBI triple in the first and the Cougars added one run in both the third and fourth by way of RBIs from Florio and Cherry. On the mound, Rowland threw 6.2 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits while striking out 10, while Florio retired the lone batter he faced on three straight pitches.
On Friday, Durant will head to Windermere for their regional semifinal matchup at 4:30 p.m. and Strawberry Crest will head to Wharton for their own at 7 p.m.