PUNTA GORDA — Dennis Braun reached for the sunglasses resting on his baseball cap, but it was too late. Tears were already drowning his eyes.
This was a special win, and it was not lost on Plant's coach, who after 24 years of coaching at "every level" had seen almost everything baseball could toss at the weathered veteran.
Braun watched proudly as his players collected equipment, then as moms hugged their boys.
This was Braun's proudest coaching moment.
After winning the first game 2-1 in eight innings then dropping the second 5-3 Friday, Plant won Saturday's decisive Game 3 over host Charlotte 11-1 in five innings to advance to the Class 5A state semifinals in Port St. Lucie. The Panthers will face Stuart South Fork (27-3), which has outscored opponents 38-0 in four playoff games, at 8 p.m. May 25.
Few seemed concerned with that looming hurdle. Braun instead took stock of the journey here and all the pitfalls en route to the final four.
"It's special," Braun said before taking a few seconds to gather himself. "They're a good group. … I know what these seniors have been through."
The Panthers (24-8) left little doubt they are worthy state title contenders, producing a two-out rally in the first inning with three runs on hits by Jake Lowe, Dylan Henderson and Mike Demo. Lowe made it 4-0 with a home run in the third inning, followed later by Demo's sacrifice fly scoring Henderson to make it 5-0.
Charlotte (21-12) had its best chance for a big inning in the fourth when it made it 5-1, but it stranded a pair of baserunners.
Any thoughts of a comeback ended when Mychal Givens hit a two-run homer in the fourth for a 7-1 lead. Then it was only a matter of time.
The offensive output gave Plant ace Sergio Pita plenty of confidence. He allowed five hits and struck out four to get the win.
"It's not nearly done yet," Lowe said. "We have two games left, and we're not looking just to go there (to the state semifinals), we're looking to take this one home."
Plant returns to the state semifinal for the first time since 1990, the year some of these seniors were born. This marks the Panthers' sixth trip to the final four, with their lone state title coming in 1988 under coach Jeff Vardo.
"People talk a lot of trash about us," Braun said. "It's hard when you're running and expected to do big things. We battled our butts off, and that's what they get in return. These kids have worked hard for four years, and they deserve everything they get."
Izzy Gould can be reached at izzy email@example.com or (813) 226-3458.