Photography by Cheryl Clanton
This past week in Fort Myers, the Florida High School Athletic Association held their baseball state semifinals and finals between some of the premier teams in each classification. This year had added momentum for our county, because the Nature Coast Sharks were one of the teams fighting for the glory. Coming off their impressive win over Alachua-Santa Fe last week to capture their first Class 5A regional championship, the entire team knew the real battles were coming up.
Sadly, their first trip to the big dance would end in disappointment.
At Hammond Stadium, the home of the Minnesota Twins in Spring Training and the Fort Myers Miracle in the Florida State League, the Sharks bats couldn’t get their rhythm going, and the team would lose their Final Four game to the two-time defending Class 5A champion Jacksonville-Bolles Bulldogs, 4-1.
Both teams had their ace pitch the entirety of the game. Sharks ace J.P. Gates threw 85 pitches in the loss, finishing with four strikeouts and six walks, and Bolles junior Hunter Barco threw 99, finishing with four strikeouts and two walks. Gates mentioned how good their lineup was, saying “They (Bolles) were good from one to nine. There wasn’t anybody in the lineup I felt I could just blow it by them.”
Bolles head coach Mike Boswell, in his third straight Final Four appearance, wasn’t counting out NCT at all. “They’re an up-and-coming school, had a great year. They didn’t seem intimidated at all about the big stage. They came out ready to play from the first pitch. Their pitcher is really good, and it was fortunate to get him early and leave it up to our big guy and his arm.”
The Sharks collected the first hit of the game, with senior right fielder Zach Funkhouser lacing an early offering to center. However, the next batter grounded into a double play, and the threat was ended.
From there, Bolles started to show why they were the defending state champions. Senior shortstop Max Robinson sent a Gates pitch to right, and the throw in was slow enough to where he could lace out a double. From there, Gates struck out the next batter, but couldn’t get past Barco, who took a pitch to deep left-center for a RBI triple. A sacrifice fly to right field would score Barco, who narrowly beat the laser throw from Funkhouser.
Another run in the second would make the score 3-0 before the Sharks struck. With one out in the third, freshman Kevin Funkhouser was hit by Barco, stole second base, and then scored on a single by his older brother. “That was nice, being able to score him. I just wish we could’ve gotten a few more,” Zach said afterwards.
The final run of the game was scored in the bottom of the third, when Ferguson laced his second double, advanced to third on a sacrifice, and then scored on a sac fly to center.
After the game, Sharks head coach Frank Vitale summed up the team’s bats going cold: “We had solid contact all game, but almost all of ours went right at the defenders, while their’s found the gaps. But that’s baseball. We played well, they played a little better.”
With the loss, the Sharks close one of the best high school preparatory careers in history, as Gates currently has two options coming up: he will either go pitch at the University of Miami, where he committed as a sophomore, or he could be selected in the upcoming 2018 MLB Entry Draft. Regardless of which path he takes, Gates is certain to do one thing: stifle opposing hitters with his craft.
That said, the Sharks have no reason to hang their heads, as the made history for the school this year. According to Gates, “We’re not a baseball school. We put baseball on the map these last few years, winning three straight district championships, and now this (Final Four appearance). The school even televised it for our students who couldn’t make it here, but the amount of people who did, it was flabbergasting. And now we’re going to get a banner put up in our school, which has never been done before. It’s really special.”