With just one win separating six Hillsborough County teams from a trip to Port St. Lucie for the final four, a few fun facts about each team.
Tampa Prep (18-9) vs. Winter Park Trinity Prep (24-4), 7:30 p.m.
Road to the region final: def. Seffner Christian 4-2; Bishop McLaughlin 3-2 (9 innings); Fort Meade 7-0; Lakeland Christian 4-2 (9 innings)
Fun facts: After posting records no more than two games over .500 the past five years, the Terrapins looked primed to add another year to that streak after starting 1-3. But fast forward a couple months, and Tampa Prep is in the region final for the second time in school history (the previous trip was in 2004).
The differences between this year’s squad and those of years past are pitching and defense. Tampa Prep managed to shave more than two runs off its team ERA (4.72 in 2011 vs. 2.69 this season). Coach A.J. Hendrix encouraged his staff to throw strikes, pitch to contact and trust the defense. The fielding percentage is also improved from last year (.914 vs. .954).
“Between Nick Adams and Durin O’Linger, we’ve thrown the ball very well,” Hendrix said of his Nos. 1 and 2 starters, each of whom have an ERA under 2.40. “It’s pretty exciting. We’ve had a lot of success at Tampa Prep this year, and we’d love to continue it.”
Berkeley Prep (16-11-1) vs. Fort Myers Bishop Verot (27-2)
Road to the region final: def. Tampa Catholic 2-0; Frostproof 6-1; Tampa Catholic 6-2
Fun facts: Until midway through April, the Buccaneers were hovering around .500. That’s when coach Justin Houston had a conversation about practice with a former Berkeley Prep baseball coach: Randy Dagostino.
“I knew he was our baseball coach many moons ago,” said Houston of Dagostino, who coached baseball in the mid 1980s before going on to win 15 volleyball state titles in 29 seasons. “He told me, ‘This is what you’re doing wrong, everything has to be situational.’ ”
Since then, Houston has heeded Dagostino’s advice. The Buccaneers use live runners when taking ground balls and specify how many outs in that scenario. Offensively, Berkeley has done the same, practicing hit-and-runs and other game-specific situations. The Buccaneers have seen the results: in the first inning of their region semifinal against Tampa Catholic, 2B Victor Pellegrino saved a run by gunning down a Crusader trying to score on a double steal.
Jesuit (27-1) at Lake Wales (22-7)
Road to the region final: def. Middleton 12-2 (6 innings); Robinson 9-2; Bradenton Bayshore 5-0; Robinson 10-1
Fun facts: Much has been made of the Tigers’ dominant pitching staff, from the surplus of 90 mph hurlers to the ERAs of the four starters (to recap: Lance McCullers, 0.11; John Kilichowski 0.23; Spencer Trayner 0.69; and Conor O’Brien 1.01). But what about the player responsible for catching all those curveballs and fastballs?
Nolan Schultz, the catcher for the No. 1 in the nation Tigers, has only two errors defensively and is adding a fair amount of offense with his .449 average (highest among regular players) and team-leading 30 RBIs. He also is in contention for the team lead in another category: rituals.
For the past two seasons, Schultz has ended his nights before games with a swim, a few laps of whatever stroke he chooses. That sets the tone for his more immediate pregame routine.
“Every single day before we hit I ask Anthony Hamlin the same question. ‘So, should I wear this shirt to hit today?’ and he says the same thing every time, and I end up not wearing the shirt,” Schultz said. “And Jordan Parnell and I listen to the same seven songs before the games, and we end with (MGMT’s) Electric Feel, which is my walk-up song.
“Every routine makes you feel good,” he said.
Brandon (18-8) at Kissimmee Osceola (19-9)
Road to the region final: def. East Bay 7-0; Riverview 2-0; Haines City 1-0; Riverview 2-1
Fun facts: When 6-foot, 160-pound Chris Toney takes the mound, he doesn’t appear overpowering. And when opponents see where his fastball registers on a radar gun — well below 90 mph — they become even more confident in their ability to knock him around.
But then nobody can hit him.
In 21 innings of playoff baseball Toney has allowed eight hits and one run. When Riverview faced him for the third time this season Tuesday, the Sharks only managed three hits. The secret: constant changes in pitch, speed and arm angle.
“Nothing is ever the same,” coach Matt Stallbaumer said after the Haines City win. “I wouldn’t know what to tell my guys if they had to face Chris Toney because nothing is ever the same.”
Gaither (18-9) vs. Venice (21-8)
Road to the region final: def. Chamberlain 8-5; Steinbrenner 10-9; Freedom 10-6; Clearwater 7-2; Seminole 6-1
Fun facts: Throughout the regular season, the Cowboys had the look of an underachieving team. As a result of its 5-5 district record, Gaither entered the 7A-9 district tournament as the No. 4 seed. The Cowboys, though, woke up just in time and are in the region final for the first time since 2005, the year they finished as Class 5A state runnerup.
“We’ve said it all along, we have the talent,” coach Frank Permuy said. “When it gets close to districts, everyone has a little more adrenaline flowing, but still, this is the way it could have been all year.”
The centerpiece for Gaither is junior shortstop Oscar Mercado. His 29 RBIs, 28 runs scored and 12 stolen bases lead the offensively charged team. Defensively, (Gaither’s clear team weakness) he has improved throughout the season and earned the distinction of the No. 1 middle infielder in the nation for the Class of 2013, according to ESPNHS.
“Fielding alone could make him an early-round pick next year,” wrote ESPN’s Jason A. Churchill.
Wharton (21-8) at Orlando Timber Creek (20-6)
Road to the region final: def. Newsome 5-2; Alonso 2-0 (8 innings); Durant 1-0 (12 innings); Sarasota Riverview 2-1 (12 innings); Durant 1-0
Fun facts: At this point, the coaching staff expects to need more than the standard seven innings to win.
“Before (Tuesday’s) game all the coaches were in my office and I said, ‘Do you really think we’re going to need 12 innings?’ ” coach Scott Hoffman said. “And they said, ‘Yeah we really do.’ ”
Hoffman and company weren't far off — catcher Reed Gray scored the only run with a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh in walkoff fashion.
One thing the Wildcats wish would go out of style: the stomach bug plaguing the team the past two weeks. Multiple players have missed practice, and shortstop Tuck Neuhaus was among a handful of players who were physically sick Tuesday. Starting pitcher Collin Woody was among those under the weather but still managed a complete-game, three-hit shutout.
7 p.m. Friday unless noted. Admission is $7.
8A: Wharton at Orlando Timber Creek
7A: Venice at Gaither
7A: Brandon at Kissimmee Osceola
5A: Jesuit at Lake Wales
4A: Fort Myers Bishop Verot at Berkeley Prep
3A: Winter Park Trinity Prep at Tampa Prep, 7:30