You could tell by the looks in their eyes, by the way they carried themselves on the field and in the dugout, that both Plant City and Strawberry Crest came to the state championship series determined to win two ballgames.
The Raiders pulled it off Thursday night with a 3-1 win over Crest in a game far more emotional than the norm for a state championship, which showed on the field.
“Crest gave us all we could handle,” Raiders coach Mike Fryrear said. “They put pressure on us. They had the scouting reports. They were more prepared than any team we’ve ever played. I mean, they put us to shame at the plate. They held our bats. They got four hits against (Jarod) Wingo, but that was amazing.”
With the two schools just more than nine miles apart from each other, there’s some overlap. This was a game of friends versus friends, of teammates versus teammates, that promised much for the fans and delivered on all counts. It came down to two teams that proved to everyone they belonged in any conversation about legit championship contenders, and it just happened to be Plant City that played the better game on the night when the ultimate prize in Florida high school baseball was up for grabs.
It started when Cole Cothren singled in the bottom of the first inning with two outs to get the first hit of the game. Parker Messick walked after Cothren took second base on a passed ball, and Hunter Emerine was hit by an Eli Garner pitch to load the bases. Tyler Dowdy stepped up to the plate and smacked a two-RBI single to plate Cothren and Messick and give PCHS the 2-0 lead.
Crest got on the scoreboard in the top of the fourth inning after Tanner Kelley reached second base on an error at first base, advanced on a Manderscheid sacrifice fly and scored on Ben Pues’s subsequent flyout to cut the Raiders’ lead to 2-1. Crest was able to get Jacob Heath to second base and Joey Parrillo to first base on back-to-back singles, but Wingo caught Alex Marshall looking to end the inning.
The Chargers got a confidence booster in the bottom of the fifth inning when Heath, who had come in to relieve Garner in the third inning, found his rhythm and dared the heart of Plant City’s order — Messick, Emerine and Dowdy — to get a hit off of him. Messick grounded out; Emerine and Dowdy went down swinging.
“He threw the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him throw the ball,” Crest head coach Eric Beattie said of Heath. “He left it all on the field and did everything he could to help this team win.”
But Jarod Wingo and the Raiders kept Crest from doing any more damage in the top of the sixth, save for Kelley again reaching on a single and advancing to second on a Manderscheid sac fly. Then the Raiders managed to score again in the bottom of the sixth when Jace Stines took advantage of a throwing error to score from third base. Parrillo, Marshall and Ryan Dell went up and down in the top of the seventh and the Plant City side erupted.
“I feel pretty great,” Wingo said. “This is the best game I’ve ever pitched in my whole high school career. I don’t think I can ever beat it. Even moving on to college baseball, I can’t beat this moment right here. State championship. It blows my mind that we just did this.”
Winning this championship, for PCHS, was like seeing so many years of hard work building a culture from the ground up finally pay off. All those long seasons and offseasons spent building skill and chemistry, forging an identity, getting the team and school and community to buy in and have faith — all of that hard work paid off. The ultimate goal, the one with the biggest box at the top of the to-do list, finally gets its checkmark. That it came against a school less than 10 miles away made it even better.
Maybe the Raiders knew it was coming all along, or maybe everyone was more shocked to have pulled it off Thursday night than anyone in uniform would admit. Maybe they’ll start talking about next year right now and get back to the “one game at a time” mentality that’s been such a huge part of their collective work ethic. Maybe they’ll spend the next couple of weeks living it up instead. No matter what, though, they’re going down in the history books as champions and they couldn’t be happier to finally grab the brass ring.
“It’s crazy to think that when I had my first team, I told them a long time ago, ‘We will be ranked in the state. We will win a state title and you will be a part of this,’ Fryrear said. “We did it.”