Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sports

State baseball: Sunlake ready to take a swing at area powerhouse

The Jesuit baseball team has struggled at state the past five years, but has had no problem in the postseason when taking on teams from Tampa Bay.

So the perfect solution to the Tigers' woes might just be this: a state semifinal meeting today at Fort Myers' JetBlue Park against a team from Tampa Bay — Sunlake.

The Tigers (25-6) have never lost to a Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando or Pinellas team not named Plant in the postseason.

While 0-3 against the Panthers, the Tigers are 22-0 against everyone else in Tampa Bay, including state championship-clinching wins over Clearwater in 1994 and Pasco in 1997.

Sunlake (20-9), trying to become the first North Suncoast team in seven tries to beat the Tigers in the postseason, would appear to be just what the doctor ordered for a Jesuit team eager to end a jinx.

The Seahawks, though, have other plans.

"They are the top dog," Sunlake leftfielder Zac Howard said of Jesuit. "It would be awesome to beat them and say we are the best team in Tampa Bay. We don't feel like we are the underdogs."

The Sunlake baseball program knows all about shadows.

Since opening in 2007, the Seahawks have been in the shadow of nearby Land O'Lakes, its older, bigger rival.

The football team, however, has escaped by making the playoffs when the Gators didn't. The soccer team went to state last season.

And finally, today, the baseball team can bask in the sunshine.

"I think this group of kids saw the pieces were there," said coach Dick Rohrberg, who is quite familiar with Jesuit after spending 12 years at Chamberlain. "We had three to four pitchers that were decent, I thought we play pretty good defense, there's a little team speed sprinkled in there and three to four decent hitters.

"Other years I've gone in thinking we'll be lucky to win 10 games. …I thought coming into this year if the kids could keep improving, and based on those other factors, we had a chance to be pretty good."

There is nothing secret about the recipe for Sunlake's baseball success this season.

In fact, to listen to Rohrberg tell it, it's all pretty basic.

Pitch the ball. Field the ball. Move the base runners around. Make fewer mistakes than your opponent.

"Fundamental baseball," he says. "Doing the little things, the routine things. That will actually get you a lot farther in the long run."

A little late-inning magic has helped, too.

The Sunlake philosophy, which Rohrberg defines as essentially wearing down opponents by putting pressure on them all game with bunting, hit-and-runs and aggressive play, has produced some miracles.

Trailing by four runs in the last inning of a district game against Tarpon Springs — on Rohrberg's birthday no less — the Seahawks were down to their last out with no runners on base before rallying.

In another win, they trailed by two with two outs and an 0-2 count on the hitter before rallying.

And in the region final win over Citra North Marion, Sunlake tied the score in the seventh inning and won it with three runs in the eighth, a rally fueled by a leadoff walk, a bunt, a wild pitch and the other team self-destructing.

The Seahawks have scored seven of their 11 postseason runs in the sixth inning or later.

"It's like a boxer, and the one guy keeps giving the other guy body shots all fight until he lowers his guard, then he knocks him out," Rohrberg said.

The Seahawks lost their season opener 11-1, lost to Land O'Lakes for the third time in the district final and were hardly a team pegged for postseason success.

But behind the exceptional pitching of David Castillo (3-0, four earned runs allowed, 26 strikeouts in 22.1 innings in the postseason), batting of leadoff hitter Omar Cala (5-for-9) and solid fielding, Sunlake is the last team standing from Pasco County.

After today, it would like to be the only team left playing in Tampa Bay.

"All season we've been playing in these close games preparing for the playoffs," first baseman Zac Scranton said. "We know how to play loose. We always have a chance."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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