FORT MYERS — Decked in formal Plant City High School green gowns, the two seniors carefully added white National Honor Society stoles and medals and chords that reflected their academic success.
The Florida Strawberry Festival queen and the first maid completed their formal look Thursday night by balancing their caps, making sure the tassels sat on the right. Assured every accessory was in its proper place, Kendall Gaudens and Madilyn Conrad turned and marched into the arena — to watch a baseball game 135 miles from their commencement ceremony.
Of course, this wasn’t just any baseball game at Hammond Stadium, spring home of the Minnesota Twins. Gaudens and Conrad, along with a number of their fellow seniors, chose to forgo their graduation to see the Plant City Raiders — their Raiders — battle for the Class 8A state championship game against Strawberry Crest, a school that sits just 9 miles west of the Plant City campus.
Crosstown rivals on a graduation night created a unique setting.
“We’ve been too close to all of them for a really long time,” Gaudens said. “They’re all going off to different colleges. We wanted to see them play one more time. It’s important for us to support them.”
Added Conrad: “They’re making history. Who wouldn’t want to watch them play.”
The teams made history when they stepped on the field. The game marked the first time two Hillsborough County high schools played against each other in a state championship baseball game. That it featured players who grew up pitching and hitting against each other in the same quaint East Hillsborough city just added to the game’s uncommon feel.
“This is as close to the real deal as we’ve ever experienced,” said Strawberry Crest mom Sandra Heath, who has watched her son, Jacob, play baseball since he was 8. “They’re both hungry for it.”
Unique? Consider this: Strawberry Crest principal Dave Brown knew he would accept the winning trophy whether his team won or lost. Plant City High School principal Susan Sullivan, of course, had to attend graduation at the Florida State Fairgrounds. So Brown agreed to be a substitute.
“It’s a rivalry,” Brown said. “But it’s a friendly rivalry.”
Plant City mayor Rick Lott also felt compelled to attend the commencement ceremonies — even though he had attended every Raiders tournament game to watch nephew Garrett Gould. When the Raiders clinched the final berth, Lott said every Raiders fan just looked at each other and asked, “You coming to the game or going to the graduation?”
Although Lott chose commencement, he assured on Thursday afternoon that he would be at the ceremony with ear buds and a livestream feed on his phone.
Like Lott, Tomlin Middle School principal Traci Durrance also had to make a choice. Talk of the game and its ironic conflict buzzed through her school Thursday, given that players on both teams got to know each other before leaving Tomlin, which sits almost halfway between the two high schools.
For Durrance, however, the choice didn’t prove difficult. Before taking over at Tomlin in 2015, she served as the assistant principal and athletic director at Plant City High, and hired coach Mike Fryrear.
She went to the game.
Durrance said the community had long fielded strong Little League teams and quality travel ball clubs, but the talent didn’t always transfer to the high school programs. That started to change in recent years, with nearby Durant winning a state title in 2013 and Strawberry Crest reaching the semis in 2018. She credited Fryrear for changing the baseball culture at his school.
On this night, Plant City’s 37,000 residents had to be happy to see two of their high schools contending, happy to see how these once tiny tots had grown into young men, happy to see how each squad bonded together to reach the prep pinnacle of their sport.
Too bad one team would end up happier. Plant City 3, Strawberry Crest 1.
After the Raiders claimed the crown, the team’s six seniors donned their caps while Pomp and Circumstance played over the PA system and the scoreboard flashed “Congratulations Graduates” with the Plant City High logo.
Let the party commence.
That’s all I’m saying.