No matter who wins Thursday’s 8A state championship game, the 2019 trophy is coming back to the Plant City area to stay.
This year’s title match will pit the Strawberry Crest Chargers against the Plant City Raiders at 7:30 p.m. in what looks to be an absolute battle of a baseball game. Crest made the cut with a dramatic 6-5 win over George Jenkins, and Plant City mollywhopped McArthur to the tune of an 8-0 final.
“We’re happy to be playing tomorrow,” Crest head coach Eric Beattie said. “We came here to do two things and we just got one of them done.”
Crest and Jenkins started the 8A action at 4 p.m. and the Chargers wasted little time getting on the scoreboard. They scored all three of their runs in regulation in the top of the first inning, starting with Jacob Heath’s two-RBI single with one out and ending with Heath scoring from third base on an error.
Getting up to a 3-0 lead so soon is a great look for any team in most baseball games. This one was different, though: Jenkins had just spent its last two playoff games pulling off successful comebacks, most recently turning a 4-0 deficit at Windermere into a 7-4 win in innings four, five and six. They nearly pulled it off in this game, too.
The Eagles started to chip away at Crest’s lead one inning at a time on Wednesday afternoon, dodging the shutout in the second inning with an RBI single from Ruben Van Vuuren. They then loaded the bases but Crest pitcher Alex Marshall and the defense were able to escape the jam. Van Vuuren put another run on the board in the fourth with an RBI double to deep left and got as far as third base during the inning, but reliever Kade Manderscheid was able to get out of that jam. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Garett Richardson was able to score from third on a wild pitch just before Taylor Buffington grounded out to force extra innings.
After an unsuccessful eighth inning from both teams, the ninth brought all of the fireworks, all of the drama people came to see. With Colby Fanning on second base and one out, Tanner Kelley put the Chargers ahead for good with an RBI double. Kelley moved to third on a wild pitch during Manderscheid’s at-bat, but was thrown out at home when Manderscheid singled. Ben Pues drew a walk and Heath was able to drive in both Manderscheid and Pues to get the 6-3 lead, thanks in part to a collision between Jenkins outfielders on the play.
“Exciting, that’s the only thing I can put it as,” Heath said. “George Jenkins, their pitchers kept it on us all day long. Nothing came easy. Their defense was spectacular.”
Jared Murphy walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth and the Chargers decided to put Heath on the mound in relief. Jenkins loaded the bases with no outs and Richardson drove Murphy in with an RBI single to cut the Crest lead to 6-4. Smitty Luttermoser’s sacrifice fly drove in Michael Ross and set the score at 6-5. Stressed as they may have been, Heath and the defense steeled themselves and pulled through. Buffington flied out to center field and Heath got Brenden Vern to go down swinging to wrap up a roller coaster of a game.
“It takes a special kind of athlete to settle everything down,” Beattie said. “These guys came out hungry today and put the foot on the gas and kept it there.”
Plant City, meanwhile, had a much different experience in the 7 p.m. game.
The Raiders have never gotten this far in the postseason before, but they certainly looked like they belonged in their 8-0 win over a McArthur Mustangs team that didn’t have the look of eagles.
“It’s like I said at the beginning of the season: this team is built for tournaments,” Plant City head coach Mike Fryrear said. “We love playing in tournaments… I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Parker Messick pitched all seven innings for Plant City and put on a clinic, giving up just three hits and no walks to the McArthur offense. He also struck out 16 of the 24 batters he faced.
Messick and Tyler Dowdy energized Plant City’s own offense with three home runs in two innings. Dowdy mashed two taters to the left in back-to-back plate appearances and Messick put his own homer well over the right field wall in the top of the fourth.
The Raiders first struck in the top of the first inning when Cade Shissler was able to score on a passed ball that also let Chris Rodriguez get to third base. Messick hit an RBI single to score Rodriguez right after the first run, putting the score at 2-0. Plant City’s offense picked up again in the third with Dowdy’s first home run, a solo shot to left center with one out, and Casey Mawhinney made it a 4-0 game when Rodriguez was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. Mario Williams scored on a passed ball during Cole Cothren’s at-bat to put the Raiders ahead, 5-0, after three innings.
Messick and Dowdy hit solo home runs in the fourth inning to make it a 7-0 game, and Shissler wrapped up the scoring with an RBI double that plated Williams, who had just hit a deep triple to left field.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for all year,” Fryrear said. “They’re shining at the right time. We see glimpses of it from time to time, but this is what we’re about. That’s fun.”
The state championship round is new territory for both teams, but don’t mistake either as just being happy to be there. The Chargers and Raiders came to Fort Myers for the highest honors anyone can get at this level, and for them to compete for that title against familiar faces — players who grew up together, played ball together before high school and may cross paths again after their high school careers are done — makes it much more special.
“It’s gonna be a game that’s easily the greatest game I’ve ever played in,” pitcher Jarod Wingo, who is already confirmed to start the championship game for Plant City, said. “I’m excited for it.”