LITHIA — One calendar year ago, a sub-.500 team, Newsome, came out of leftfield to win the Saladino Tournament, Hillsborough County baseball’s premier event.
Flash forward to last week, and there was a team, Newsome, that started the season 1-6 but went 3-0 to win its Saladino pool.
The Wolves won again in the quarterfinals. It took a one-hit performance and barehanded catch of a line drive by two-time MVP Jimmy Herget of Jefferson to end Newsome’s 10-game Saladino winning streak and stop one of the more surprising runs this county has seen on a diamond in a long while.
Newsome (8-7), honestly, was caught off guard by the success.
“We surprised ourselves a little bit,” said shortstop Tyler Packanik. “We thought all year we were better than what our record was. But right when Saladino calls, we’re ready to go.”
The name on the front of the jersey may have been the same, but that’s one of the few carryovers from last season. Gone are the six senior starters, nine total on the roster, and in their place is a bevy of juniors and underclassmen.
And in the offseason realignment, Newsome landed in a new district — with defending state champion Alonso, Plant, Durant, Bloomingdale and Wharton.
“We’re called the Wolves here,” second-year coach Bill Highsmith said, “and they threw us to the wolves.”
Despite the changes, the March magic remained. Case in point: that quarterfinal against Plant.
The Wolves played the Panthers at Plant on Feb. 24 and had a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the sixth inning. The bases were loaded, there were two outs and two strikes on Plant’s Joe Hudek. Highsmith called his centerfielder in, and Hudek blasted a high pitch over his head for a three-run double. Newsome lost 6-4.
About three weeks later, the situation was similar. Bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, two outs and two strikes. Newsome’s Dayne Wade, who entered the tournament hitting right around the Mendoza line, hit his second double of the day to drive in two runs and shock Plant 4-3. It was the first time this year Newsome had defeated a district foe.
“It’s the best district in Hillsborough County,” Highsmith said, echoing a commonly held belief. “I mean, are we going to come out on top of the district? With a young group, these guys have done great. A key hit at the right time, and we’re there.”
Last year, the clock struck midnight as March turned to April and Newsome lost in the first round of the district tournament. On Tuesday, though, the Wolves showed signs that the magic might be a bit more permanent. In their first game since Saladino, against Alonso, the Ravens bolted out to a 7-2 lead. But Newsome battled back, and it was bottom of the seventh, two outs. Erik Dowse, fresh off his second Saladino all-tournament team selection, hit the winning double for the 8-7 win.
“More confidence for us,” said Dowse. “We’re kind of the comeback kids.”
Dowse, who earned the win when he came on in relief to pitch a scoreless seventh, saw his good fortune start early this season when he started scratching KNL — his girlfriend’s initials — into the dirt before each inning. He hasn’t given up an earned run since he started the ritual (“What happens if you break up?” Packanik asked. “I’m keeping her initials,” Dowse said).
Whatever it takes to keep the magic alive.
“Any day, any team could beat anybody in this district,” Dowse said. “Don’t ever count us out.”