DURANT — For the plan to work, Chaz Fowler had to keep the game within striking distance and Durant needed to punish Orlando Timber Creek for pitching around Tyler Danish.
So much of the Cougars’ winning formula revolved around Danish on Friday night, from getting him to the mound to providing at least a little run support.
But Fowler, Luke Heyer and Jake Sullivan showed there’s much more to the Cougars than their Gators-bound senior ace and, because of it, they’re going to the state semifinals for the first time.
Fowler pitched four strong innings, Heyer drove in the Cougars’ first two runs — including the go-ahead score in the fifth — and Danish homered and closed out the game, lifting Durant to a 6-1 victory over Timber Creek in their Class 8A region final.
“This is a special group,” Durant coach Butch Valdes said. “It was nice to see everybody fighting tonight.”
The Cougars (23-5) have won 11 straight games, riding a wave of timely hitting and dominant pitching en route to their first regional championship.
All of that was on display Friday, when Valdes chose to give the start to senior lefty Fowler, who came into the game with a record of 7-3 and 1.41 ERA.
Valdes’ strategy was to let Fowler take the first four innings and then bring in Danish for the final three.
Fowler mostly delivered, allowing only a two-out RBI single to Tyler Konzen in the second inning. He eventually settled himself and retired eight of the next 10 hitters.
“I had a little bit of nerves,” Fowler said. “But I knew that I would go out there and shut them out.”
Sullivan and Heyer were pivotal in the comeback, with the former getting a two-out single in the third to set up the latter’s game-tying RBI single. Heyer put the Cougars ahead for good with another RBI single in the fifth.
Durant added three more runs in the fifth, effectively putting the game out of reach for the defending region champions.
That offensive outburst set the stage for Danish’s dramatic home finale: a solo homer over the leftfield fence in the sixth inning and three straight strikeouts in the seventh to seal the victory.
“We couldn’t have had a better finish,” said Danish, who also set a school record with eight homers this season. “We did something that’s never been done here before. Now we’re going to go down in history.”
For Timber Creek, which had won two region championships in the past three years, the end seemed academic once Danish came to the mound with a four-run lead.
“He’s been virtually unhittable,” Timber Creek coach Scott Grove said. “So we knew we almost had to play perfect.”
6A: King ace elevates game
TAMPA — More than 24 hours before the Class 6A region final, King coach Jim Macaluso could see something different in his ace’s eyes.
That fire turned into an inferno Friday night.
UF signee Brett Morales delivered one of the best games in program history, flaming a school-record 17 strikeouts and leading the Lions to a 4-1 victory over Mitchell in front of an amped-up home crowd.
The win sends King (25-3) back to state for the third time in school history and the second time in the past four years.
“He’s a guy tonight that has to say, ‘Get on my back, and I’m gonna take you to Fort Myers,”’ Macaluso said. “And he did it.”
Morales dominated Mitchell (24-6) from the start, mixing some of the best curveballs and changeups of his 11-1 season with a fastball that touched 94 mph.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander’s lone blemish came in the top of the second, when Mustangs slugger Eddie Goscicki bashed a 2-1 pitch far past the 335-foot fence in rightfield.
The Mustangs mustered only two more hits after that and only seriously threatened in the fourth. FSU commit Cobi Johnson led off the inning with a double, and King intentionally walked Goscicki. Morales struck out the next two batters to end the threat.
“I felt a little extra juiced up,” said Morales, who has allowed only five earned runs all season.
King added some offense in the third. Tanner Williams singled in Devon Pedro, and two Mitchell errors and Morales’ RBI single tacked on two more runs. The Lions scored again in the fourth thanks to another Mustangs miscue.
That was more than enough cushion for Morales.
The MLB prospect threw 70 of his 99 pitches for strikes. He allowed only one base runner in the final three innings on a single by PJ DeJesus but forced a groundout on the next pitch to end the game.
“I felt something tonight, that he took another step,” Macaluso said. “He became even more of a pitcher and not just a power thrower.”
Morales made sure to protect his right shoulder as his team dogpiled in the infield following the program’s biggest win in four years.
Macaluso celebrated, too — he was lifted onto the team’s shoulders and posed for photos with a giant cutout head of himself some students brought to the stadium — before turning his attention to a May 22 showdown with Lynn Haven Mosley that could make him forget about the 11-1 loss in his team’s last trip to state.
“Thank the good Lord,” Macaluso said, “we’re gonna get one more shot.”
5A: Persistent Tigers rally in seventh
TAMPA — Jesuit’s Daniel Portales has never been happier to have a pitch thrown at his head.
Down a run to Auburndale with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning Friday, Portales was the Tigers’ last hope. Make an out, Jesuit’s season is over. Get on base, the Class 5A region final continues.
After working the count full, Auburndale reliever Zach Gary threw high and wide for ball four. That tied the game at 4.
“That was the biggest at-bat of my life,” Portales said.
Then came the next-biggest at-bat of Jesuit’s season.
With two strikes and the bases still loaded, Ricky Caldevilla lined a pitch into rightfield that scored Leland Saile for the winning run. Jesuit scored two runs with two out in the seventh to win 5-4.
“I’m just trying to keep a clear head,” Caldevilla said. “I was just trying to stay within myself and make something happen. He threw me a fastball away and I took it the other way.”
For much of the game, Jesuit looked to be in control. Starter Spencer Trayner held Auburndale scoreless through three innings and his teammates got him two runs in the bottom of the third. Vincent Miniet had a two-RBI double to make it 2-0.
The Bloodhounds (21-9) scored in the fourth on a wild pitch by Trayner. But Jesuit got that run back when Ryan McCullers hit a home run to left-centerfield that landed in the football stadium bleachers.
Things fell apart for the Tigers in the top of the sixth. An infield groundout with one out allowed a run to score. Then Cole Yoder got a hit to put two runners on.
Ronnie Ramirez came on in relief of Trayner. Auburndale’s Burris Warner hit a sharp grounder. The ball ticked off Ramirez’s glove and rolled toward second base. Will McClintock made a throw to first but Portales missed and the ball rolled into the dugout, allowing two runs to score.
In the bottom of the sixth, McCullers led off with a walk. Pinch-runner Cole Gibbs made it to second with no outs but was picked off. Portales then doubled but was stranded.
“We still had an at-bat,” coach Richie Warren said. “We could recover. We’ll put Cole back in that same situation and the next time he’ll score a run.
“… You have to have confidence in your guys.”
3A: Terps can’t topple Melbourne CC ace
TAMPA — Tampa Prep acting coach John DeTringo had a challenging time getting a scouting report on Melbourne Central Catholic.
Once he did, he learned it was right on the money.
Senior left-hander A.J. Smith, who plans to walk on next season at Florida Southern, was a strike-throwing machine, and Tampa Prep gave up 11 unanswered runs in the final four innings in an 11-2 loss Friday night in a Class 3A region final.
The Terrapins (21-9) were denied their second straight trip to state. Tampa Prep played the season without coach A.J. Hendrix because of physical issues.
“It’s been kind of a tumultuous season with not having the head guy out here all year,” DeTringo said. “We had some injuries we fought through all year, and were running on fumes and smoking mirrors down the stretch.”
DeTringo picked up tendencies on MCC (21-5) Friday afternoon from coaches at Orlando First Academy, the team the Hustlers beat in the quarterfinals. Smith’s pin-point control topped the list.
“In the report was (Smith) was going to hit his spots,” DeTringo said. “He’s about 82-84 (mph), and he’s going to be a ball to two balls off the plate. If he’s getting that strike call, he’s going to be tough to hit.”
Smith (12-1) scattered seven hits, struck out six and went the distance. Sixty-eight of 91 pitches were strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 22 of 29 batters. After Tampa Prep took a 2-0 lead in the third, Smith allowed only two singles and no runners beyond first the rest of the way.
The Hustlers took the lead for good at 3-2 in the fifth on a two-run homer by Austin Nickle off loser Watson Ransom.
2A: Baserunning savvy boosts Cambridge
TAMPA — All season, Cambridge Christian has used the stolen base to its advantage, an equalizer for a team short on heavy hitters.
On Friday at Doc Nance Field, Cambridge ran itself all the way to the Class 2A state semifinals, the Lancers’ third final four appearance in six seasons and first under third-year coach Sam Marsonek.
Cambridge stole home twice and swiped seven bases total in a 5-3 victory over Winter Garden Foundation Academy.
“Our coach has always taught us to be aggressive on the basepaths and if we get the opportunity to take that chance,” leftfielder Elias Rivera said. “We can’t afford to miss those opportunities.”
Trailing 1-0 in the second inning, Cambridge (16-9) had runners at first and second with no outs when Rivera showed bunt but pulled back and roped a single to rightfield that tied the game. Then, with runners at second and third, Tyler House took advantage of the deliberate delivery from Foundation starter Justin Minnick and easily stole home for the go-ahead score.
“I asked (Marsonek) if I could go because I saw the pitch before and (Minnick) had a really slow windup,” House said. “I was kind of scared he would throw it and hit me, but other than that, I knew I had it.”
In the process, Rivera stole third and No. 9 batter Zack Stein later drew a two-out walk. With runners at the corners, Stein got caught in a rundown trying to take second base and kept the play alive long enough to allow Rivera to score, giving Cambridge a 3-1 advantage.
“That’s an eighth-grader who recognized he had to stay in the rundown and avoid the tag until our guy could score,” Marsonek said. “Those are heads-up things that our guys do themselves.”
Three Cambridge errors in the third allowed Foundation (13-14) to close to within a run, but the Lancers pushed their cushion to three when Levi Gilcrease and Zach Hessinger stroked back-to-back RBI singles in the bottom half of the inning for a 5-2 lead.
Cambridge pitcher Nick Eicholtz gave up an RBI single to the Lions’ Caleb Hood in the fifth inning but struck out four of the final five batters he faced in the sixth and the seventh.
“I knew the end of the game was mine,” said Eicholtz, who struck out nine and allowed four hits. “There was just an ease about me. I don’t know where it came from, but it felt awesome.”
4A: One inning trips up Tampa Catholic
FORT MYERS — Tampa Catholic did what was once unthinkable Friday night — scoring a couple runs off of a red-hot Bishop Verot pitcher. Unfortunately, the Vikings also did some hitting of their own.
Bishop Verot broke out with a five-run fourth inning, highlighting the Vikings’ 8-2 victory over Tampa Catholic in a Class 4A region final.
Bishop Verot banged out 15 hits against four Crusader pitchers, which was more than enough support for Verot starter Jeff Passantino (11-1), who entered with a 0.77 ERA.
“This was a tremendous effort by our guys,” Tampa Catholic coach Ty Griffin said. “A lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance to get this far, because we have such a young team and young pitchers. We feel we put some pressure on (Bishop Verot) for a while. We’d like to think we’re one of the toughest teams they’ve played this season.”
Clayton Smith took the loss for the Crusaders (18-12).
“Clayton, we felt, had the best shot to keep us in it,” Griffin said. “We debated whether starting him tonight, because he had a recent illness. He was our best chance, and he did keep us in it for a while. But we’ve got a lot of young pitchers, and they weren’t able to keep the boulder from rolling.”
The Vikings (24-6-1) scored first in the first. It remained a 1-0 game until the fourth.
Tampa Catholic took a brief lead with two runs in the second. Paulie Russo singled to start the inning and went to third when Passantino made an error on a pickoff play. Jorge Romero then beat out an infield hit, allowing Russo to score. Romero went to second on a sacrifice and scored on Joseph Burruezo’s single to right.
The Vikings then scored six runs in their next two at-bats.
“We did great things by being ranked No. 9 in the state,” Griffin said. “A lot of teams would’ve loved to be in this position. We enjoyed the moment tonight, and we’re already looking forward to next year.”
at JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
8A: Durant vs. Hialeah American-Miami Sunset winner, 10 a.m. May 17
6A: King vs. Lynn Haven Mosley, 1 p.m. May 22
5A: Jesuit vs. Ponte Vedra, 7:30 p.m. May 22
3A: Clearwater Central Catholic vs. Jacksonville Providence-Daytona Beach Father Lopez winner, 10 a.m. May 20
2A: Cambridge Christian vs. Miami Westwood Christian, 1 p.m. Wednesday
Photo: King players lift Jim Macaluso high after the veteran coach guides the Lions back to state for the third time ever.
Staff writers Matt Baker and Rodney Page, and correspondents Bryan Burns, Thomas P. Corwin and Don Jensen contributed to this report.