BRANDON — Ask Chase Sparkman about the last time Brandon lost a game and the freshman stops. He pauses, looks up to the sky and fiddles with the retainer in his mouth.
"It was Armwood," Sparkman said. "I think?"
Sparkman's memory was good but the cause of his delayed answer makes perfect sense.
It seems like years ago when the Eagles lost a game.
"We've been going pretty good," junior catcher Mike Smith said.
That's one way to put it. Another is that Brandon has been on fire since that 5-4 loss to Armwood at the end of March.
The Eagles have won 14 straight games and done so against some highly regarded teams. During the stretch, Brandon defeated Newsome twice, Alonso and nationally ranked Plant. The Eagles can also count two wins against Hillsborough in the streak, including a 5-3 victory to secure the prestigious Tony Saladino Tournament title April 11.
"To this point it has been one game at a time," coach Matt Stallbaumer said. "And for the kids it's still that way. But for us coaches, it's now about winning a series."
When did "series" become part of the high school baseball vocabulary? Usually, it's reserved for summer tournaments, college baseball and the pros. But for the first time, the Florida High School Athletic Association approved a best-of-three series this year to decide the region championships in all classifications.
"We haven't really talked too much to the kids about any of that," Stallbaumer said. "That would be looking past the first game Friday and those things are for the coaches to do, not the players."
That first game will be this afternoon at 4 against visiting Winter Haven when Brandon tries to move one step closer to the state title in the new format.
The second game will begin 30 minutes after that and, if a third game is necessary, will be played Saturday. The winner moves on to the state Final Four next week at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium. "I knew we had a shot to win districts at the beginning of the season," Sparkman said. "But this is more than I could have expected."
Sparkman wasn't alone. With seven sophomores starting, many early-season observers considered the Eagles a year away from challenging the best teams. But Brandon shed the perceived age limitations, even if others didn't so readily see it.
"People have talked about (how young we are) all year," Smith said. "But I've always looked at these guys like teammates, not sophomores."
The extended region championship shouldn't affect the Eagles in terms of pitching —Brandon is deep in that department. The Eagles showed that by winning five games in seven days during the Saladino Tournament. Austin Browder (5-1, 2.83) and Cory Schools (5-0, 2.03 ERA) will likely start today's games, although who throws the first one hasn't been determined.
"Teams see Austin and think he's just a little kid (in stature), but the guy is a beast inside," Smith said. "Cory might have the best mindset on the team. He's just so strong mentally."
Browder is finally coming into his own after not pitching in the beginning of the season due to elbow tendonitis. Stallbaumer was careful to bring Browder, who threw the most innings of any Brandon pitcher last season, along slowly.
"It was really hard to just sit there in the beginning of this season," Browder said. "But coach told me that he wanted me ready for district time because that's what's really important, so I just did what he asked."
Backing up Browder and Schools is Sparkman (2.21 ERA, four saves). The lefty ninth-grader, who stands all of 5-foot-4 and weighs 130 pounds soaking wet, came up huge during the Eagles march to the Saladino title. Far from a flame-thrower, Sparkman's control has been the key to his 7-0 record.
"He just steady hits his spots," Smith said. "Wherever I set up, that's where he puts the ball."
Stallbaumer also has shown no hesitation turning to Dan Trnka, Matt Bennett and the hard-throwing James Ramsay in tight situations.
Add the Eagles' pitching depth to an expected raucous home crowd and there's plenty of reason to believe Brandon will be making a trip to Sarasota next week.
"Even for our 4 o'clock game last Friday (in the region semifinals) against Newsome, every seat in the bleachers was full," Stallbaumer said. "The support in the community has been unbelievable and I think the kids really feed off of that."