DOVER — The game featured a pair of Hall of Fame coaches and their senior-laden teams. The focus was on a region championship and final-four trip. The fidgety finish proved fantastic for Strawberry Crest.
The Chargers (18-10) won their second straight Class 8A, Region 1 title Wednesday with a 3-2 victory against Tallahassee Chiles.
Strawberry Crest advances to play either Lakeland George Jenkins or Windermere next Wednesday in a state semifinal at Fort Myers.
“It feels just as good as it did last year,” Strawberry Crest coach Eric Beattie said. “Anytime you get in the dog pile, it’s a feeling of euphoria. . . . You get to watch a team that’s worked.”
Beattie, a Hall of Fame inductee to the Sunshine State Conference, University of Tampa athletics and the Cape Cod Baseball League, received five perfect innings from left-handed starter and winner Alex Marshall, who was given a 3-0 lead after four.
But the game was decided by defense: A diving catch by leftfielder Ben Pues with the potential tying run on second with one out in the seventh, and a two-out error in the fourth by Chiles second baseman Parker McDonald, who appeared to lose concentration moments before dropping a Colby Fanning infield popup that led to the Chargers’ final two runs — both unearned.
Chiles (16-14), coached by former Florida State infielder and Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame member Dick Steed, was looking for its first region crown since 2014 — the second of back-to-back championships for the Thunderwolves. Strawberry Crest and Chiles both started the year with eight seniors.
The Timberwolves rallied late after having their first 15 batters retired by Marshall. A four-pitch walk to McDonald, followed by a Mason Correa bunt single and subsequent throwing error by Strawberry Crest first baseman Tanner Kelley, put Chiles on the scoreboard in the sixth. An infield out gave the Timberwolves another run in the inning to set up a wild seventh.
Marshall gave up a lead-off double to Mason Sanford and was replaced by Kade Manderscheid. No. 4 batter William Kilduff was the first batter to face Manderscheid, but the Chiles player never finished his at-bat. He appeared to injure a finger during a bunt attempt and was replaced by Dillon Giesecke, who struck out.
Pues’ dramatic play came next. Jaxson West drilled a shot to left-center, but Pues raced toward the ball and made a diving catch for the out to keep Sanford at second. Manderscheid hit the next Chiles batter, then induced McDonald to ground out to Tanner and end the game.
Pues said he momentarily lost the West liner.
“It was a low line drive, so I was thinking I could get behind it and make a good throw (to the infield),” Pues said. "I lost it in the lights. Then, as soon as I saw it again, I said I can make a play and go after it.
“It keeps the career going, so I’d say it’s the best play I’ve ever made in my high school career.”
Manderscheid's one-out single in the third scored Alex Mussenden (two base hits) to give Strawberry Crest a 1-0 lead.
The Chargers’ two-run rally in the fourth started with two outs. Joey Parrillo and Ryan Dell drew walks off Chiles starter and loser Ben Gurley. Fanning then hit a popup to McDonald, who dropped the ball — scoring courtesy runner Caleb Weaver. Mussenden followed with a single to score Dell with what proved to be the winning run.
“Our defense has just been huge for us,” Beattie said. "It goes back to mental toughness.
“Marshall was locked in all day, and he did exactly what I thought he was going to do. I’m proud of my whole team.”
At Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Class 8A: Strawberry Crest vs. TBD, 4 p.m. May 29
Class 8A: Plant City vs. McArthur, 7 p.m. May 29
Class 7A: Doral Academy vs. Leto, 7 p.m. May 31
Class 6A: Jesuit vs. Miami Springs, 1 p.m. May 31
Class 4A: Calvary Christian vs. Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian, 7 p.m. May 24