Sharks gain regional redemption, advance to Sweet 16

Photography by Cheryl Clanton

Only one Hernando County prep baseball team survived Tuesday’s first round of regionals, and for Nature Coast it was also about gaining a measure of redemption.
The Sharks found themselves hosting Orlando-Lake Highland Prep in a Class 5A, Region 2 quarterfinal, just as they had last year when they allowed four runs in the seventh inning in a 5-3 loss.
This time around, Nature Coast took care of business. Even after giving up two runs in the top of the first, the Sharks rallied right back and pulled away for a 7-3 victory.
“I thought we played well, especially with the first inning, giving up two runs. We could have easily said, ‘Here we go again,’” Nature Coast head coach Frank Vitale said. “We’ve been hitting the ball really, and we got another bunch of hits tonight. So it was good, it was good.
“With the experience we got last year, I thought that we would be a little more relaxed this year, and I think we were. If this was last year and we gave them two in the first inning, it might have got ugly. But we hung in there, we held our composure, which was good.”
The Highlanders (16-9) got to ace lefty J.P. Gates out of the gate, as Matt Morgan and Will Saxton hit back-to-back one-out doubles in the top of the first, and an error brought in another run.
In the bottom of the frame, Brandon Frangione’s two-run double followed singles by Ryan Lotito and Gates. Brennan Cross singled with two outs to drive in Frangione, and suddenly the Sharks (19-9) were up, 3-2.
Kyle Mandes singled to start the bottom of the second, and an error made it 4-2. Zach Funkhouser hit a solo home run in the fourth, and Brandon Riera and Cross both singled and scored in the fifth.
Gates settled in after the first, giving up one more run on a double by Ryan Demaree in his sixth and final inning. The hard-throwing junior struck out 13, giving up six hits and hitting a batter while walking none.
Thanks to the win, the Sharks will play at Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic in a regional semifinal next Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“They know what’s ahead of them, though, because Bishop Moore, they’re a perennial every year,” Vitale said.
The Hornets (16-12) defeated Hernando, 4-1. All the scoring was done in the first inning, with the visiting Leopards (15-13) getting it started with a bases-loaded walk by Morgan Ashton.
Seth Martin homered to start the bottom of the first for Bishop Moore. An error scored another, then Fabian Escalante doubled in one and came around on a wild pitch.
“We had our chances in the fifth, sixth and seventh and just couldn’t get it done,” said Hernando head coach Tim Sims, noting the team left 11 men on base. “We had our opportunities to tighten it up. It was a very good ballgame, played very well. We just didn’t get the key hit at the right moment late in the game to make it interesting.
“We had good senior leadership. We plugged some holes with freshmen and sophomores. We learned and got better as the season went on. I’m very happy with it.”
Springstead dropped its 6A-2 quarterfinal against Belleview, 2-0. The normally hot-hitting Eagles (24-4) managed just two singles, by Dakota Blevens and Joey Delgatto. Both runs for the visiting Rattlers (21-5) were unearned.
“We made a few mistakes, a few errors, and you can’t give somebody four outs. We didn’t hit the ball characteristically like we normally do,” Springstead head coach Shawn Laferty said. “They made every play. You tip your cap to them. They did the job and we didn’t.
“I think we had a great season. To be 24-4, we set a lot of records, to win that many games, that’s special. It’s a special team; probably one of the best teams to ever come down the pike.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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