To be a powerhouse sometimes you have to beat a powerhouse.
While the North Florida Christian baseball team had eyes on back-to-back titles as it made its fifth state tournament appearance in nine years, its opponent in Tuesday afternoon’s FHSAA Class 3A state championship game had a resume tough to top.
Miami Westminster Christian’s experience proved to be kryptonite to NFC’s vaunted pitching staff, as the Warriors perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunts, double steals and old fashioned power to hand the Eagles a loss.
Westminster Christian beat NFC starter Cole Ragans and the Eagles, 7-2, to earn a record-tying 11th state baseball title for the Warriors fans that traveled to Fort Myers’ JetBlue Park. The game was called after 5-1/2 completed innings by the FHSAA after a three-hour weather delay, eliminating any chance of a prospective Eagles comeback, though it did give Westminster its first state title since 2009.
“It’s tough, but we have to understand we had opportunities early in the game,” Eagles coach Mike Posey said. “The weather, they weren’t even going to get the other game in. You just can’t put yourself in that position. But we had a good year. It’s hard to get to that final game, but not finishing is really tough.”
Until the sour note, it was truly a star-studded final as NFC (21-10) with its 11 final four appearances and head coach Mike Posey’s 630 wins dueled Westminster (24-7) and its 16 final fours, state-record 75 playoff wins and 28 consecutive playoff appearances. The Warriors’ program has yielded past MLB stars such as Alex Rodriguez and maybe future stars such as senior third baseman and Vanderbilt signee Julian Infante.
Infante went into the state final with a .465 average and 13 homeruns, and in the first inning took a ball from Ragans left over the plate deep to the outfield wall in left field for the game’s first run. Westminster coach Emil Castellanos then began a series of moves to change the game’s complexion. Clean-up hitter Michael Arencibia dropped down a suicide squeeze bunt and Infante scored before Eagles catcher Taylor Schmidt could field the ball.
“In a game like that, it’s all about execution and they did it and we didn’t,” Posey said. “Our kids know that. We got behind in the first inning and it’s an uphill battle from there.”
Warriors outfielder Alvaro Valdez, after a single, pretended to trip on a steal of second, luring Ragans into making a pick-off throw at second. Valdez reached safely, and Jakob Zarrello, who had previously walked and moved around on the bunt, stole home on the throw for a 3-0 lead.
“We knew what they were going to do,” NFC infielder Landon Seymour said, “but in the heat of the moment nothing was flowing well for us.”
“Facing a first-round pick, you’re going to have to get breaks, you’re going to have to create pressure,” Castellanos said. “But three runs is not enough to win a state championship. When you get three runs you have to be happy, but you want to keep pressure on and get into the bullpen.”
Ragans (7-2), rated one of the top junior prospects in the nation, was chased after just three innings pitched. Two more runs crossed in the bottom of the third after Westminster put together three hits on Ragans, but the biggest RBI was on a play where pinch runner Miguel Cardoza screamed around third as NFC tried to turn an inning-ending double play.
The Eagles, however, only got the out at first and the relay throw first to home wasn’t in time to get a sliding Cardoza.
“We felt like we did it (in the semifinal), five stolen bases, we put pressure on the other team,” Posey said. “We talked about the energy level we needed today, but they were the ones that were the aggressor. We got down 3-0, were back on our heels, and they put pressure on. That’s what you have to do in a game like that. Ragans didn’t throw the best game he could throw and they came out thinking they needed to score runs. It’s something we have to learn from.”
One inning later, Castellanos pulled clean-up hitter Arencibia in favor of Cardoza’s bat, and he proved his coach smart by dropping a two-run double into the left field gap for a 7-1 lead. NFC’s only runs came innocently. The Eagles got a run across in the third on an RBI safety squeeze by senior infielder Logan Dungey, and another in the fifth on a hit by pitch and two wild pitches from Westminster starting pitcher Jagr Enriquez.
Enriquez (4-1) got the win in his first start of the year– another strategic move by Castellanos– after pitching in relief in the Warriors’ semifinal win over Canterbury. The Eagles could never time up the side-armer’s delivery, and Westminster ace Ryan Terry came on to throw 1-1/3 innings before lightning halted play.
“We didn’t know until the day of that’s who we were getting,” Seymour said. “The only way we prepared for it was soft toss before the game. It was a tough adjustment to make. All submarine guys are different and they all have different spin on the ball. It was hard to pick up at the beginning, then we started to get onto it, but by that point it was too late. It’s heartbreaking, especially being a senior and the last time we put on the Eagle uniform. It’s hard, but it’s just when you start a new phase of your life.”