TAMPA — In his 25 years at Gaither, Cowboys baseball coach Frank Permuy can't remember a time when his entire lineup was so much in flux heading into a district tournament.
"It's funny," Permuy said. "Here we are, 20-something games into the year and we're unsettled."
As the postseason begins Monday, the Cowboys are eyeing their 10th district title, and their first since 2006. But Gaither will embark on the same David-vs.-Goliath climb that they've become accustomed to this season.
Gaither (18-6) is the third seed in the Class 6A, District 7 tournament at Countryside and opens against No. 6 seed St. Petersburg on Monday. The two seeds above them — No. 1 Alonso (23-2) and No. 2 Mitchell (22-3) — are arguably the two hottest teams in the area. And five of Gaither's six losses have come to those two teams.
Alonso has won 12 straight, including a Saladino tournament title. Mitchell is winner of 10 straight and would put left-hander Patrick Schuster, who is after his fifth consecutive no-hitter, on the mound against Gaither on Tuesday.
"I just hope we're not looking ahead to Mitchell, because St. Pete can beat us," Permuy said. "They're peaking at the right time. It's not a cakewalk by any means. You try to tell these guys that, but you can't help but look ahead. We know what he does, and a lot of the pitches we swing at are out of the strike zone."
Permuy said it would be the seventh time his team has faced Schuster in the past two years, including two losses to Schuster this season. But out of the nine hits that Mitchell's no-hit king has allowed this season, four have come against Gaither.
"I think we would give him a run," said Gaither junior centerfielder Drew Doty, who is tied for the county home run lead with nine and hit a leadoff double off Schuster earlier this season.
Permuy admits he believed the Cowboys, a team that starts just two seniors but boasts a talented junior class, were a year away from contending. Their top two returning arms, closer Dylan Hathcock and starter Austen Thrailkill, threw a combined 10 innings last year, but have both been clutch in crucial moments. Freshman left-hander Alex Milne and sophomore Zach Jackson have emerged to play key roles.
Their lefty-heavy lineup — there are five on an average day — struggled early against power lefties such as Schuster and Alonso's Thomas Dorminy, forcing Permuy to move Doty, a left-hander, around in the order. Leadoff hitter Justin Delgado, a switch hitter, began hitting right-handed exclusively to balance the lineup.
And Gaither's run to the Saladino championship game, where they lost to Alonso, gave the Cowboys a taste of the do-or-die postseason format. A win over Plant before the Saladino gave a young team confidence.
"It seems like from there we all just picked it up," senior shortstop Kory Wan said. "We all started hitting. Defense came around. Pitching definitely came around."
An upset loss to King this week was a wake-up call, which Permuy said is a positive this time of the year.
"What we are is a team though," Permuy said. "We do stick together. No matter how bad it got to us, we're pumping them up and no one gets down on anybody. I think that helps the young guys a lot."
Schedule: Monday — Gaither (3) vs. St. Petersburg (6), 4 p.m.; Countryside (4) vs. Sickles (5), 7; Tuesday — Mitchell (2) vs. Gaither/St. Petersburg winner, 4; Alonso (1) vs. Countryside/Sickles winner, 7; Thursday — Final, 7
Outlook: Alonso is the hands-down favorite, but this might be the most competitive district top to bottom in the bay area. Any of the six teams could pull it out with a good week. Just ask the Ravens, who were upset by St. Petersburg in the district semifinals last season. Don't expect Alonso to be caught off guard this year.
Host: East Bay
Schedule: Monday — Riverview (4) vs. Sarasota Riverview (5), 1 p.m.; Durant (3) vs. Plant City (6), 4; Sarasota (2) vs. East Bay (7), 7:30; Tuesday — Durant/Plant City winner vs. Sarasota/East Bay winner, 4; Lakeland (1) vs. Riverview/Sarasota Riverview winner, 7:30; Thursday — Final, 7:30
Outlook: National powers Lakeland and Sarasota should meet in the final, but Durant and Riverview are surging in this competitive district. The question is whether the locals have enough pitching to match up over the long haul of the tournament.
Schedule: Monday — Armwood (2) vs. Newsome (7), 4 p.m.; Brandon (1) vs. Tampa Bay Tech (8), 7; Tuesday — Bloomingdale (3) vs. King (6), 4; Wharton (4) vs. Freedom (5), 7; Wednesday — Armwood/Newsome winner vs. Bloomingdale/King winner; 4; Brandon/TBT winner vs. Wharton/Freedom winner, 7; Thursday — Final, 7:30
Outlook: Brandon/Armwood, Part 3 is the likely final, with the teams having split the regular-season series. The Eagles will receive a boost with the return of first baseman Roderick Shoulders, last year's top run producer, from an injury. Can Armwood's big bats of Zack Powers and Joe Cartwright match up?
Schedule: Monday — Middleton (8) vs. Blake (9), 7 p.m.; Tuesday — Jesuit (1) vs. Middleton/Blake winner, 5; Leto (4) vs. Jefferson (5), 7:30; Wednesday — Hillsborough (3) vs. Robinson (6), 5; Plant (2) vs. Chamberlain (7), 7:30; Thursday — Hillsborough/Robinson winner vs. Plant/Chamberlain winner, 5; Jesuit/Middleton-Blake winner vs. Leto/Jefferson winner, 7:30; Friday — Final, 7:30
Outlook: Jesuit's regular-season-ending loss to Sarasota gives the other teams hope, and Plant — with superprospect Mychal Givens — is primed to give the Tigers the best challenge. But the Sailors are the only team to shut down a lineup that has five players (including Joey Spack) with 25 RBIs.
Schedule: Tenoroc (4) vs. Kathleen (5), 7 p.m.; Tuesday — Spoto (3) vs. Haines City (6), 4:30; Bartow (2) vs. Ridge Community (7), 7:30; Thursday — Lake Wales (1) vs. Tenoroc/Kathleen winner, 4:30; Spoto/Haines City winner vs. Bartow/Ridge winner, 7:30; Friday — Final, 7:30
Outlook: With two of the top strikeout pitchers in the county in George Schmitt and Jake Pettit, Spoto has the ability to make some noise in this district. But do the Spartans have the bats to support them and knock off host Bartow or Lake Wales? Probably not.
Host: St. Petersburg Catholic
Schedule: Monday — Berkeley Prep (4) vs. Lennard (5), 7 p.m.; Tuesday — Tampa Catholic (1) vs. Berkeley/Lennard winner, 4; St. Petersburg Catholic (2) vs. Clearwater Central Catholic (3), 7; Thursday — Final, if SPC wins, at 5; if CCC wins, at 7
Outlook: Tampa Catholic has dominated this district, and since a 1-4 start, the Crusaders have had few peers, regardless of class. But SPC is a talented team that pressed Jesuit, and CCC is young but always capable in the postseason.
Host: Bishop McLaughlin
Schedule: Bishop McLaughlin (2) vs. Indian Rocks Christian (3), 4 p.m.; Tampa Prep (1) vs. Calvary Christian (4), 7; Thursday — Final, 7
Outlook: Tampa Prep overcame some early bumps to take the first seed with a 4-2 record and has won six of eight heading into the district tournament. It did split the series with Bishop McLaughlin.
Host: Seffner Christian
Schedule: Thursday — Lakeland Sonrise Christian (2) vs. Seffner Christian (1), 5 p.m.
Outlook: Seffner likes to run, and in this two-team district, it should easily beat Sonrise.
Host: Cambridge (Doc Nance Field)
Schedule: Tuesday — Tampa Bay Christian (3) vs. Bayshore Christian (2), 4 p.m.; Thursday — Tampa Bay Christian/Bayshore Christian winner vs. Cambridge (1), 4
Outlook: Led by veterans such as Trent Tagliarini and Peter Miller, the Lancers know what it takes for a deep postseason run after their trip to state last year, so Cambridge is an easy pick.
Schedule: Tuesday — Citrus Park Christian (2) vs. Oldsmar Christian (3), 6 p.m.; Thursday — Canterbury (1) vs. Citrus Park/Oldsmar winner, 6
Outlook: Fonzie Diaz, the county's third-leading hitter and second-best base stealer, leads a Citrus Park team that overcame an early season slump to become a factor in this district.