The planned return to the Little League Southeast Region tournament has not been as smooth as expected for the Plant City Majors team, but that doesn't make the boys any less of a favorite to repeat as state champs.
Plant City will try to accomplish both goals beginning Friday, July 26, in Lutz, site of this year's state event. Should it escape the weekend as one of the last two teams standing, Plant City will play for the state title on Monday.
"We're starting to look like a well-oiled machine," said Plant City manager T.J. Messick. "Once they started to talk to each other, have fun and stop stressing, it kind of set them apart."
A nail-biting win over North Brandon last Friday at Lakewood Ranch also helped. The opening game in the Section 4 tourney proved to be the key contest as PC eked out a 5-4 decision.
Saturday's concluding games saw Plant City blow out host Lakewood Ranch 19-2 and pound Lutz 10-0.
"Really, the North Brandon game was the championship," Messick said. "Had it been the last game, you'd have had two 2-0 teams playing for the title."
Whenever it was played, the game went down to the wire. Plant City led 4-0 until, with two outs and two strikes in the third inning, when North Brandon's Will Gilbert hit a three-run homer.
Fortunately Cade Shissler hit a home run in the top of the fifth for some cushion, because North Brandon plated a run in its final at-bat.
Messick called on J.J. Gonzalez to get the final out, and with the winning run at the plate he got the strikeout.
After the big challenge from North Brandon, it was easy pickings. Plant City hit five home runs, including three on consecutive at-bats by Tommy Johnson, Jake Stines and Braxton Plunk in the rout of Lakewood Ranch. Bryar Christian had three hits including a homer and Andrew Long hit a three-run shot while collecting the win on the mound.
Then against Lutz and its hard-throwing ace Danny Bautista the offense really got rolling. Ben Pues had four hits and two homers.
In last year's sectional event Plant City played the same three teams and all three games were competitive. It bodes well for this weekend in Lutz.
"When (All-Stars) started we weren't really gelling," Messick said. "You could tell the kids were thinking, 'Oh this is districts, we're going to crush everyone.' And then North Lakeland gave us a scare (6-3) in the finals and they figured out that we had to get it going."
Greater Dunedin, which went over to Tampa and came away with the Section 7 crown last weekend, plays Plant City on Friday at 5 p.m. On Saturday at 11:30 a.m., Plant City faces the only other returning team, North Springs. Pool play concludes with game against Northwest Leon Saturday at 5 p.m.
The Leon team had a two-team sectional tournament but did knock out a Niceville side that had gone through its three district games with a combined 58-0 score. Dunedin knocked out the considered home team, Bayshore, in the Section 7 final. North Springs won its sectional title with a thrilling 10-9 defeat of Kendall.
Over in the other pool sit Martin County North, Deltona, East Orange National and Sarasota America. So Plant City should have a decided home-field advantage of anyone.
The top two teams from each pool advance to play in Sunday's 11 a.m. semifinals. Those winners will meet Monday morning at 10, with the winner headed to Warner Robins, Ga., as Team Florida for the Southeast Regional.
Plant City came up short in a bid at last year's regional, but all season the players have spoke of going one step further and reaching Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.
But vying for the state title comes first.
Darek Sharp can be reached at [email protected]