Last week’s 8A state championship game, on paper or otherwise, was the best matchup any baseball fan in Florida could have hoped for.
I don’t care who you are, where you live or what rooting interests you have in high school sports. Getting that Strawberry Crest-Plant City matchup in the championship round was the best possible outcome for the 8A state tournament and made for one of the most compelling games I’ve ever seen.
The semifinal games were great fun to watch in two completely different ways and I had no doubts that the better teams won in each contest.
Seeing Strawberry Crest come into this year’s tourney looking much more ready for the moment than in 2018 was great. I watched last year’s semifinal game against Sarasota and could tell that one was going to sting for a while even before we got to the postgame presser to hear Eric Beattie and the Chargers confirm it. You could tell the Chargers learned a great deal from last year and the effort they put in against a very good George Jenkins team was commendable. If you’re a sports fan, this Crest squad was the kind pretty much anybody could root for.
I also have to give Kade Manderscheid a quick shout-out here for rocking that mustache for the series. I’m not sure how to describe the look of the ‘stache in a way we could get away with printing in the paper, but it took guts to pair that with the Ric Flair bleached hair a lot of the players on both teams had and I respect the power move.
I wasn’t sure how Plant City would fare in the moment as a team completely new to this stage, plus the stage before it. I’ve seen great teams in other sports shrink in much smaller moments than a state semifinal. Then the Raiders went out there and looked like a team that gets to Fort Myers on the regular. Great pitching, great defense, great hitting — it was all there and the cherry on top was seeing kids hitting bombs over the bleachers and into the berm with total confidence. Mike Fryrear and the staff did a great job getting the players ready for something no one before them has ever done before.
So we got an 8A state title game that not only started with a lot of hype, deservedly so, but also brought Plant City area fans together like never before.
Sure, rooting interests were very much in play. No one who went to PCHS, a school that’s existed for 10 times longer than Crest has, was going to root for Crest to win unless they had a kid on that team. But there was such a positive vibe coming from the fanbase since it happened to be these two teams. Mayor Rick Lott made it out to Strawberry Crest’s semifinal to cheer on the Chargers before watching his alma mater crush McArthur. Walking around the PCHS dugout after that semifinal game, I heard PCHS students discussing going to the championship game instead of graduation (which, inconveniently for Plant City, was scheduled for 8 p.m. that same Thursday evening). Cory Kirkland, a past Plant City Little League president who has a child at Crest, told the Observer he made it out to all three games because he’s coached and taught players from both teams when they were young Little League ballers.
One of the coolest things about the Plant City area, at least for someone like myself who wasn’t born and raised here, is how the people come together to support each other when they want to. There’s a friendly rivalry here, sure, but nothing about this game and the buildup felt bitter. It was two programs who genuinely seemed happy for each other’s success, but weren’t about to lie down and let anyone take that title without a fight. And now that it’s all over, no matter what was left on the field, they’ll probably talk about this game with each other for years. If nothing else, it could lead to some interesting wiffle ball games pretty soon.
Hats off to both teams for putting in the work to get this far. You all made your community proud and put it on the map like never before.