Nature Coast’s baseball team came into the Class 5A, District 7 Tournament seeded third behind county rivals Hernando and Central respectively, having gone 1-3 against those two in the regular season.
Furthermore, the Sharks opted to use ace lefty J.P. Gates in a first-round 12-1 win over Gulf on Tuesday, leaving him unavailable the remainder of the tournament.
Yet on Wednesday, Nature Coast bested tournament host and second-seeded Central in a semifinal, 7-4, and followed up in Friday night’s championship game with a 15-5 triumph over top seed Hernando to repeat as district champion.
“We hit the ball really well. We had 17 hits in five innings (on Friday). It was amazing the way we hit the ball,” Nature Coast head coach Frank Vitale said. “We’ve been hitting the ball better as the year has progressed. Once the weather started to warm up we hit the ball better. We made a couple of changes in the lineup. Over the last few weeks we’ve hit the ball well against good competition.
“These kids grew up playing with each other and playing against each other. It doesn’t matter if we play Weeki Wachee, Central, Hernando and Springstead, these kids all know each other. And with social media, that makes it worse.”
The Sharks (18-9) jumped out to a 9-1 lead after an inning and a half versus the Leopards (15-12), who had swept the season series. Catcher Brandon Riera was the primary culprit, smacking two home runs and driving in seven runs.
Riera hit a two-run bomb as part of a five spot in the top of the first, and added a grand slam in the second. He finished with three hits, as did Brandon Frangione and Zach Funkhouser. Kyle Mandes got the start and threw four innings to earn the win, after Brandon Santiago got the victory against Central.
Rather than disappointment, Hernando head coach Tim Sims expressed satisfaction that his squad will still advance to regionals for the second year in a row and seventh time in eight seasons.
In the Wednesday semifinals, the Leopards defeated Hudson, 3-2. Cameron Price threw a complete game, giving up one earned run on seven hits and a walk, striking out five.
“You have to really tip your hat to Nature Coast,” Sims said. “They came out swinging the bat. The pitcher Mandes pounded the zone and it was a good ballgame; a very good ballgame from their perspective.
“Hopefully we meet in the money game to go on to the regional final. We have a tall task at hand, but that’s the way I look at it.”
That would be surviving a regional quarterfinal at Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Hernando lost there in the same round last year, 10-1.
“We’ve got to get the ball and locate it better,” Sims said. “If we just compete at the plate like we did. We just ran into a hot (Nature Coast) team. They are hot at the right time of the year.”
Meanwhile, the Sharks host Orlando-Lake Highland Prep on Tuesday in a rematch from a year ago, when the Highlanders rallied for four runs in the seventh to stun Nature Coast, 5-3.
“We feel really good about where we’re at right now,” Vitale said. “I’m expecting a close game. But at least we don’t have to drive two hours.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.