VALRICO — Before the district tournament started Monday, Wharton coach Scott Hoffman noticed a funny little quirk about the bracket.
It looked awfully familiar.
The Wildcats were poised to face the same teams they had last year, when they won the District 8A-7 championship and made it to the region final. If only they could manage to, well, finally win.
“We’re like, ‘This is the same exact bracket as last year,’ ” Hoffman said. “Except we have a 6 (seed) in front of our name instead of a 3.”
Collin Birch pitched five strong innings and Reed Gray singled in two tiebreaking runs in the sixth inning, lifting Wharton to a 4-2 victory over Alonso in the 8A-7 semifinals Tuesday.
The win sends the Wildcats (12-13) back to the district final and into the state playoffs, which is something of an upset after finishing district play winless in 10 games this season.
Wharton will face top-seeded Durant (20-5) in the 8A-7 final Thursday night, a rematch of the 2012 championship game won 1-0 by the Wildcats.
In the other semifinal, Tyler Danish hit a two-run homer and kept alive his seasonlong scoreless streak in the Cougars’ 6-0 win over Plant.
Danish threw a one-hitter, striking out eight and walking only two against a lineup featuring the county’s top hitter (sophomore Kyle Tucker) and two of its leading home run hitters (Tucker and senior Pete Alonso).
The University of Florida signee, who improved to 11-1 this season, extended his streak of shutout innings to 64.
“He did a great job like he’s been doing all year,” Durant coach Butch Valdes said. “But we realize as a team it’s going to take more than just him to make it happen. It was a good time for them to come together like this.”
The road back to the 8A-7 championship game was much different this season for Wharton, which went from first to worst in the district but finished 10-3 against the rest of its schedule.
Seeded sixth — last place — in the district tournament, the Wildcats had to beat No. 3 seed Newsome then No. 2 Alonso to make the state playoffs.
They pulled off the 4-3 upset of Newsome on Monday then followed it up with another one Tuesday, proving earlier claims that almost any team could emerge from this district — almost certainly one of the state’s toughest.
Wharton finally made an offensive breakthrough against Alonso junior Alex Faedo, who pitched for the Ravens in their regular-season games.
The game-deciding surge came in the sixth, when the 6-foot-5 Faedo opened with a walk and hit the next batter, Brett Kaminski. Ryan Lawson followed with a bunt that loaded the bases.
That brought Gray to the plate, who was 0-for-8 this season against Faedo, including two earlier appearances that afternoon.
But this time, Gray sent Faedo’s searing fastball to deep left-center and drove in Alex Kranick and Kaminski.
“I just got in there and was really confident,” Gray said. “He threw me a good pitch that I could hit.”
7A-9: Steinbrenner overpowers Freedom
TAMPA — The 7A-9 district playoffs started with Freedom’s 11-inning 1-0 play-in victory Monday over Chamberlain. On Tuesday afternoon Gaither dropped a 3-0 decision to Zach Drury and Wiregrass Ranch.
In the evening, Steinbrenner punished Freedom 21-4 in five innings. The Warriors and Bulls, both making their first regionals appearance, will square off Thursday for the district title.
Freedom scored four runs and held a 4-2 lead in the second inning. But Warriors coach John Crumbley was unfazed.
“This is a different team this year,” Crumbley said. “(Starter) Gideon (Dunn) just wasn’t getting the pitches where he needed them. Once we stopped the bleeding, regained our focus, we were able to stay with the plan.”
The plan was to wear down the Patriots as the Warriors scored 10 runs in the second inning then nine in the third to overwhelm four Freedom pitchers. Steinbrenner turned to its reserves after three innings but the damage had been done: 21 runs, 18 earned, on 14 hits.
The Patriots committed five fielding errors.
Leadoff hitter Alex Hanson was 4-for-4 with a walk and five RBIs. No. 9 hitter Brennan Garcia was 1-for-2 with a walk and four RBIs.
The Bulls and Drury jumped on some miscues and built a 3-0 lead in five innings. Drury picked off two baserunners and the Cowboys committed two errors to let runners on who eventually scored.
A rock-solid performance from Gaither’s Hunter Henderson, who turned in his eighth complete game of the season in as many starts, was squandered. He gave up one earned run on seven hits with two strikeouts and two walks. The loss sealed the first losing season for Gaither (11-12) since its inaugural year in 1984.
Bolstered by Drury’s six-hit outing, the Bulls made their first regional appearance in seven years.
“I was hyped; I’d never pitched in this situation before. It’s been up to the seniors,” said Drury, who finished with six strikeouts and four walks in 5 1/3 innings. “It feels good. I know Coach is happy.”
Drury’s younger brother, Austin, came on in relief and got the save for Wiregrass.
7A-8: Pitching pushes Plant City, Brandon
RIVERVIEW — With playoffs on the line there was no kidding around in Tuesday’s 7A-8 semifinals. All four teams threw their aces and nary a bullpen motion was made.
Plant City’s Keven Long and Brandon’s Eric Hinostroza came up largest, each striking out nine to lead their teams into Thursday’s final at Riverview.
Long won his second game in as many days as the Raiders stopped red-hot Hillsborough 1-0. Later Hinostroza improved to 8-0, adding three hits as top seed Brandon took out host Riverview 3-2.
The Sharks (13-12) loaded the bases twice but got only a run out of it. In the sixth inning, two walks and a Dakota Moritz single had Hinostroza on the ropes, but he struck out the next two. A wild pitch scored pinch-runner Gregg Williams, pulling Riverview within 3-2 but then Bailey Neer grounded hard to second baseman Austin Sullivan.
Brandon (18-6) used sac bunts by Troy Linderman and Drayden Williams to help plate runs in each of the first two innings; Hinostroza and Jordan Feist had the RBI singles with Feist’s coming on a surprise two-out bunt. Miguel Fajardo made it 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth.
Chad Colding struck out three in taking the loss for Riverview. Jeff Shapiro doubled and scored the other Sharks run.
In the afternoon Long was on point throughout for the third-seeded Raiders (13-11), mixing a strong fastball with a wicked curve for a two-hitter.
“He’s special. And the thing was, he wasn’t really throwing hard today,” said Plant City first-year coach Mike Fryrear.
While Long was setting down 16 straight, Plant City was leaving 11 on base against the Terriers’ Dylan Moore. Long led off the seventh with a single and the Raiders loaded the bases, only to have Long called out for leaving third base too soon on a would-be sac fly.
“I definitely did not leave early. Little disappointed on that one,” said Long.
But he buckled down on the mound and fielded the final out on a chopper, taking it to first himself.
Sawyer Dawson was 3-for-3 and drove in the Plant City run in the second after Chris Wells tripled.
Hillsborough (17-7) had a recent eight-game win streak, while Plant City very nearly didn’t make it to the semifinals, needing three runs in the seventh Monday to beat East Bay 5-4.
Long wasn’t supposed to pitch, but Fryrear put him in when the Indians loaded the bases with none out in the fifth.
“I wasn’t going to let my season end with my best pitcher on the bench,” Fryrear said.
Long struck out the side then finished the East Bay game throwing 35 pitches. Long’s pitch limit Tuesday was 80. He ended up eight shy of that mark but admitted to tiring around the fifth inning.
6A-11: Leto adds drama in return to regionals
TAMPA — It had been 10 years since Leto advanced to the region playoffs.
For Leto fans, the longest wait, however, may have come in the final innings of the Falcons’ eight-inning, 4-3 district semifinal victory Tuesday over Strawberry Crest.
Leto held a 3-1 advantage going into the seventh inning but surrendered two runs to send the game into extra innings.
The undeterred Falcons rebounded in the eighth. Leto’s first two batters singled, and the Falcons scored the winning run when a throw to third on a sacrifice bunt attempt got by the Chargers’ third baseman.
“We’re not extremely successful at our school, so we relish every chance that somebody has a chance to prove that we are competitors,” Leto coach J.J. Pizzio said. “These guys try to represent the school as much as we can. It’s not our baseball team. It’s much bigger than that. It’s Leto Falcons.”
Frank Collado sparked Leto’s offense with an RBI single in the first inning and an RBI double in the third to build a 2-0 lead for the Falcons (14-10). Strawberry Crest (18-10) got a run back in the fifth when Jake Ralyea’s infield single scored Jeffrey Murray, but the Falcons pushed the lead to two runs again in the bottom half of the inning on a Chargers error.
Leto starter Jose Pupo pitched effectively but ran into trouble in the seventh inning. After an RBI groundout cut the lead to one, Pupo loaded the bases with two out and ran the count to 3-0 against Tanner Thompson. At that point, Pizzio called for reliever Al Maceo, but Maceo’s second pitch was ball four, bringing home the tying run. Maceo got a groundout on the next batter to keep the game tied, setting up Leto’s dramatic finish.
“I got really tired toward the end of the game, threw a lot of pitches, but it happened,” Pupo said. “My team came out, and they didn’t need me at the end of the game.”
Leto will face King in Thursday’s 6A-11 district final.
The Lions (21-3) scored six runs in the first inning against Jefferson and cruised to a 9-2 victory in the early semifinal.
Right-hander Brett Morales pitched six shutout innings, striking out six Jefferson batters.
“We’ve been hitting the ball very well and six runs in the first inning is huge,” Morales said. “Keeps you confident and relaxed out there and just pitch how you pitch.”
Jefferson (17-10) had seven hits to King’s five, but the Dragons were undone by a combination of walks (six) and wild pitches (three).
5A-11: Lennard nearly pulls upset
RIVERVIEW — Hours before their District 5A-11 semifinal, Lennard coach Kennedy Duran had his team gather around to watch a grisly YouTube video.
They watched pounced as a tiger pounced on a zebra, an expected — and accepted — ritual of the wild. The tiger, jaws already around the zebra’s writhing neck, went in for the kill.
The twist: the zebra kicked the tiger in the face, giving it enough time to dart away to safety.
“We were that zebra,” Duran said.
Indeed. The Longhorns put up quite a fight Tuesday night, nearly pulling off the monumental upset of the nationally ranked Jesuit … Tigers.
But Leland Saile’s RBI double in the fourth inning provided the winning score, and Jesuit held on 3-1 to advance to the 5A-11 final.
The Tigers (23-2) will play for the district championship 7 p.m. Thursday against Robinson, a 3-2 winner over Blake in the earlier semifinal.
Coming off two straight losses to close the regular season, Jesuit found itself on the verge of another defeat against a team it had beaten by a combined score of 38-4 in their previous two regular-season games.
With the score tied at 1 in the bottom of the fourth, Saile doubled in Ryan McCullers from first for a lead it would never lose again.
“When it wasn’t necessarily going our way, you have to force the issue a little bit,” Jesuit coach Richie Warren said. “That was a long way for (McCullers) to go. But there was no doubt that he wasn’t at least going to attempt to score.”
In the other semifinal, Robinson scored all of its three runs in the first inning and senior Caleb Rankin pitched a complete game in the win over Blake.
Rankin allowed six hits, and had three strikeouts and two walks as he improved to 7-3 this season.
Charlie Cole, Mario Giovannetti and Cody Hodgens drove in runs for the Knights (13-10).
4A-9: Berkeley Prep advanced to the finals with a 6-1 win over Sarasota Booker.
The Buccaneers, who snapped a seven-game losing streak, will face Tampa Catholic in the district championship game Thursday.
Anderson Baldy threw a two-hitter in the victory, striking out 12 and issuing no walks.
2A-8: At the Interbay Little League complex, senior Zach Hessinger’s three-run home run in the bottom of the fifth clinched top-seeded Cambridge Christian’s 12-1 mercy-rule victory against No. 4 Tampa Bay Christian.
Brandon Furr and Zach Mallan also homered for the Lancers (12-9), who face Bayshore Christian in Thursday’s 7 p.m. final.
Bayshore got 11 strikeouts from senior Dylan Richards in a 4-3 semifinal win against Academy at the Lakes.
Correspondents Andy Warrener, Darek Sharp and Bryan Burns, and staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.