The Section 4 Little League All-Star tournament is in Lakewood Ranch this weekend but it will have a decidedly Plant City feel.
Plant City is sending an impressive handful of contingent teams to Manatee County, with five different teams hoping to advance to the state tournament level.
"We continue to be very proud of our showing at the district level," said Plant City Little League information officer Steve Shissler. "We came away with seven district titles out of eight where we had eligible teams. The next level is sectional play, which is one of the hardest tests."
Plant City Major League baseball will grab the most attention. The squad came achingly close to reaching the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 2012.
It will look to finish that quest this year. Confidence brims with 11 players returning from the team that reached the Southeast Regional in 2012 and came within one win of playing in the regional final.
Bryar Christian, Hunter Emerine, J.J. Gonzalez, Andrew Long, Parker Messick, Braxton Plunk, Ben Pues, Dylan Robinson, Connor Rogers, Cade Shissler and Jake Stines all return to the team and Tommy Johnson and Jacob Smith are the new faces.
Plant City manager T.J. Messick expects a challenge when the team takes the field in the Section 4 Tournament.
"I found out last year that most of the Southeast Region teams only have to play districts and they advance straight on to the state tournament," he said.
As a result, some of those teams aren't as battle tested. Messick says most of the teams Plant City will face next weekend are state-champion quality. "If we can get through sectionals, we should be tough the rest of the way," he said.
Pues hit two home runs in the July 5 district title-clinching 6-3 win over North Lakeland. In its four games, won by an average score of 12-2, Plant City belted 10 homers with Pues collecting three, Emerine two and Messick, Long, Robinson, Christian and Johnson all grabbing one each.
They announced their presence early, with five home runs in the opening win over Haines City.
The 9-10 Baseball championship went to Plant City 1, one of two teams representing the league because of an excess of talent. Plant City 1 dipped into the loser's bracket before twice beating Auburndale, the team that sent it to the losers bracket. Before those two wins, Plant City knocked out Plant City 2.
Plant City 2 lost its tournament opener, a tight 4-3 defeat against Auburndale, then had to play three times — twice prevailing by one run —before falling to Plant City 1 11-0 on June 28.
Ryan Robinson was the hitting star for Plant City 1 in the two wins over Auburndale, clubbing a three-run shot in a 14-0 whitewash, then hitting a solo homer in the much closer 3-1 final June 30.
This weekend, the 9-10's will take on host Lakewood Ranch today at 7 p.m., then North Brandon Saturday at 10 a.m. followed by a 12:30 p.m. game against New Tampa.
The 10-11 Baseball side meets North Brandon today at 7, Buffalo Creek Saturday at 10 and Lutz Red Saturday at 12:30. Especially impressive was the 10-11 team scoring double digits in all four of its wins and getting home runs from Garrett Gould, Hayden Fesperman, Jose Machado and Josh Dunbar along the way. The latter two both hit two-run shots in the clinching 11-4 win over Auburndale.
Not reaching sectionals but giving it a good effort was Plant City's Junior Baseball team, which lost its opener then eliminated Auburndale and Lake Wales before falling in the final to Haines City. It was a tough go; the tournament got rain delayed for seven consecutive days.
In softball: Plant City, which hosted the district tournaments, sent all of its teams on to the sectional level. The 9-10 club will play Bloomingdale National today at 6 p.m., then take on Buffalo Creek Saturday at 9 a.m. and New Tampa at 2 p.m.
The Majors open against the same two teams: Bloomingdale National at 7 p.m. today and Buffalo Creek at 9 a.m. before closing with Land O'Lakes Saturday at 2.
And the Juniors challenge East Point Saturday at 10 a.m. and Dade City later at 3.
Along with the 50/70 Intermediate Baseball team, Junior Softball advanced to sectionals without any district play.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]