Photography by Alice Mary Herden
Over the last three seasons in Hernando County, high school baseball has begun a rejuvenation of sorts, and the constant in this equation is the Nature Coast Sharks. Whether it be their ability to hit the ball efficiently or play lockdown defense, the team has dominated their competition, which allowed them to host Taylor High School on Tuesday night in a FHSAA Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal.
This would be a point where someone would say it wasn’t enough and the Sharks lost, right? Wrong, and it involves one main benefactor: Sharks ace J.P. Gates.
Using his trademark Clayton Kershaw pitching accuracy and Madison Bumgarner strength, the senior Miami commit started with a modest single, then retired the next 16 and added a two-run no doubter to center field as the Sharks would defeat the Wildcats in Round One, 7-0.
Gates finished the game with 12 strikeouts and only one walk, needing 86 pitches to send the Sharks into the next round.
The scoring started early for the home team, with senior outfielder Zach Funkhouser leading off the game with a seven-pitch walk (following an 0-2 count), and following two quick outs, fellow outfielder Brandon Frangione laced a single which scored him from second (he advanced on a swinging strike the catcher couldn’t hold onto).
The next tally of runs came in the third inning, when Gates laced a single to left, and then pinch runner Jayden Crawford scored on another single by Frangione. Third baseman Brennan Cross would also score in the third, which saw Wildcats pitcher Brandon Neely’s pitch count skyrocket from 37 to 70. Neely’s night would end in the fourth following three straight hit batters, the first of which, Zeth Rodriguez, would score on a deep sacrifice fly to center.
And finally, in the sixth inning and following a Funkhouser single, Gates took the first pitch he saw from Wildcats reliever Lane Phillips and sent the pitch into orbit for the final scoring of the night.
Nature Coast head coach Frank Vitale, in his fifth year at the helm, was highly complimentary of his entire team’s performance: “All season long, we have preached what I like to call “daggers”, which are hits with two outs. It prolongs the inning and gives us life.”
When asked about Gates’ play, Vitale said “He’s been with us since he was a freshman, and ever since then he has put on performances like the one tonight. His talents are going to get him far someday, and I will miss his contributions to our team dearly.”
For the Sharks, they are one of three teams still alive in playoff contention in Hernando County. The Hernando Lady Leopards softball team won their region semifinal game against NCT and now face Keystone Heights on Friday night at 7:00. A win for the Leopards would put them in the state semifinals next Friday against the winner of Marianna and West Nassau. The second team, Springstead’s baseball group, won their game against Lake Weir by mercy rule, 12-0. They now face Dunnellon on Tuesday at 7:00, with the winner facing either Jefferson or Jesuit. And for NCT, they will face the Bishop Moore Hornets, who defeated the Leopards baseball team, on Tuesday at 7:00. The winner of that game will face either Tavares or Santa Fe in the Elite Eight.
FHSAA REGIONAL TOURNAMENT GAME SCHEDULE FOR 5/11/2018-5/15/2018
5/11: 5A REGION II FINAL- HERNANDO LADY LEOPARDS V. KEYSTONE HEIGHTS INDIANS, 7:00, TOM VARN PARK
5/15: 5A REGION II SEMIFINAL- NCT SHARKS V. BISHOP MOORE HORNETS, 7:00, NATURE COAST
6A REGION II SEMIFINAL- SPRINGSTEAD EAGLES V. DUNNELLON TIGERS, 7:00, DUNNELLON HIGH SCHOOL