Plant City knew it was a good baseball team. The Raiders knew it in the fall and they knew it once the regular season started in late February.
But when you’re a member of the Plant City baseball team, you tend to keep that sort of thing to yourselves. The Raiders have had a few (but not too many) good teams in the past. It always ended in disappointment.
It’s well documented that Plant City hadn’t won a district title since 1968 until this year. So the obvious goal every season is to win the district tournament. But this year’s team had bigger goals. A district trophy is fine, but why stop there?
“Even when we were going to the playoffs with 22 wins we talked about how we could not let this be a typical Plant City season,” senior pitcher Parker Messick said. “We’ve prepped ourselves for this. We wanted to be here. We’re clicking right now.”
With Messick on the mound, Plant City always has a chance. The Florida State commit is 11-1 and has a 1.15 ERA. In 86 innings pitched, Messick has struck out 117 and walked only 19.
He will get the start Wednesday when the Raiders make their first state tournament appearance. They will be playing Hollywood McArthur (15-5), which is also new to the state tournament.
Messick threw a three-hitter in a 2-0 win over Steinbrenner in the region quarterfinals. He threw a one-hitter last week in a 3-0 win over Seminole in the region final. In three playoff games, including a 7-1 win over Durant in the district semifinal, he has allowed only one run and given up six hits in 21 innings.
“We just know that if we get two or three on the board, then we’re going to win,” junior first baseman Cole Cothren said. “He’s that good of a pitcher.”
The Raiders (28-2) also have a top-notch staff behind Messick. Juniors Tyler Dowdy and Jarod Wingo are a combined 11-1 and both allow under two runs per game. Senior Grant Gifford has pitched 30 innings and has a 1.42 ERA.
Then there is the offense. The Raiders hit over .300 as a team. Cothren, who is a junior, has a .464 average. Senior Cade Shissler has a .374 average and has hit four home runs. Messick has nine doubles. And Dowdy is a .346 hitter with five home runs, including one against Seminole.
As would be expected from a 28-win team, the Raiders are well-rounded.
“A lot of people never expect Plant City to be there,” Raiders coach Mike Fryrear said. “But I know the work ethic these kids have. They prepare very well. They just have that grit.”
And now they have the belief.
Plant City won the prestigious Saladino Tournament in March, only to have to forfeit the win due to a pitch count technicality. They lost twice on the field, to Sickles and Bloomingdale, but the Sickles game turned into a win after the Gryphons had to forfeit due to an ineligible player.
The Raiders finally got past a tough district, which gave them the belief that if they can beat teams in Hillsborough County, they can beat anybody.
“After Saladino we looked at ourselves and said, ‘Okay, boys, we’re one of the best teams in the county,’” Dowdy said. “We’ve got this. Ever since then we’ve put in the work.
“We’ve had one goal all season and that’s to get to states. Now that we are there we have one more goal. Win it.”
Itty-bitty Plant City, as they like to call themselves, is sure to send a big group to Fort Myers. The players admit it’s going to be an agonizing wait until they finally get to board the bus and head south. But it’s nothing compared to how long the program has had to wait for a state tournament berth.
“This is absolutely amazing,” Messick said. “We’re doing this for our town, our team and everybody who comes out to watch us. It’s indescribable.”
Contact Rodney Page at [email protected]. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.
State baseball semifinals
At Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers. Admission is $9 per day (advance) or $12 (day of); parking is $10.
Class 8A: Strawberry Crest vs. Lakeland George Jenkins, 4 p.m. Wednesday
Class 8A: Plant City vs. McArthur, 7 p.m. Wednesday
Class 6A: Lynn Haven Mosley vs. Dunedin, 10 a.m. Friday
Class 6A: Jesuit vs. Miami Springs, 1 p.m. Friday
Class 7A: Doral Academy vs. Leto, 7 p.m. Friday