TAMPA — The magnitude of Plant's 7-3 victory against Sickles on Tuesday in the Class 8A region semifinals was emphatically mentioned by Panther coach Dennis Braun, who was greeted by several fans as he walked alone off the Sickles field.
"Biggest win since '09," he said.
Plant (23-5) banged out 11 hits and put 20 of 41 batters on base — scoring all but one of its runs with two outs — to move within one victory of its first region championship in nearly a decade. Sickles (22-5) had its dream season end, one that featured a school record for wins and its first district title against Plant.
The Panthers have not won a region title since 2009, when a Braun-led squad defeated Punta Gorda Charlotte in a best-of-three series. Plant lost in the state semifinals that year to eventual champion Stuart South Fork
Senior Brock Fagler was in the middle of everything for Plant with his pitching, hitting and savviness. The right-hander earned the win with 6-2/3 innings of six-hit ball, allowing three runs on Josh Luther's bases-loaded triple in the bottom of the second that had given Sickles a 3-2 lead.
Fagler struck out 11 and walked four before Leo Oshinski came on for the final out.
Fagler played a major role in the game's two pivotal plays, both in the fourth inning, when the score was tied at 3.
Mike Haydak (3-for-4, two doubles, two runs scored and two RBIs) reached second with one out on a single and stolen base. An out later, Conner Scott was intentionally walked to bring Fagler to the plate. Fagler lifted a high fly ball to shallow center against loser Dylan Eskew with three Sickles players converging on the play. A back-peddling Trey Bacon, the shortstop, appeared to call for the ball with a breeze blowing out as centerfielder Chris Chambers and leftfielder Tyler Green looked on. The ball fell between the trio, and Fagler's single had scored Haydak with the go-ahead run.
"I think that was the dagger to (Sickles') heart," Fagler said.
In the bottom of the inning, Sickles threatened to tie the game with Green on second and Luther at the plate with two outs. But Fagler wheeled and threw a perfect pickoff throw to shortstop J.D. Urso covering second to nail Green and end the inning.
"Brock is just heady," Braun said. "It's not just pitching, it's his awareness out there (on the mound) . . . and him and J.D. got together (for the pickoff). That was huge for us.
"I really think (Fagler's RBI single in the fourth) hurt (Sickles). We talked about it being a windy day (and) to keep running, because something like that's going to happen. It fell for us, and we got that break."
Fagler, who had two RBIs, added a pair of hits along with Matt Coker and Reece Blanco.
"This (win) is huge," Fagler said. "(Sickles) beat us twice (earlier), and once when I was on the mound."
Braun said Plant's plan was to apply early heat on Sickles.
"We were able to put pressure on them for the first four innings, and I think at this level, that's everything. We've talked about two-out base hits since we got in the playoffs, and you got to have quality at-bats and two-out base hit for RBIs. Haydak was great (Tuesday) getting us going all night, and guys stepping up doing their jobs."