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State baseball: Plant City wins community battle for first title

The Raiders, making their first state appearance in almost 100 years of playing baseball, top Strawberry Crest 3-1 to win Class 8A.
These Plant City seniors will get their diplomas later, after missing the graduation ceremony to play in the Class 8A state title game Thursday night. In the meantime, gold medals will do just fine. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)
Published May 31
Updated May 31

FORT MYERS — Plant City High School opened in 1914. The Florida High School Athletic Association began its state baseball tournament in 1922. It took 97 years, but the Raiders finally have their names in the record book.

In a Class 8A championship featuring schools almost 9 miles apart, Plant City defeated Strawberry Crest 3-1 Thursday night at Hammond Stadium. The Raiders (30-2) were making their first appearance in the state tournament. Strawberry Crest, only 11 years old, was in its second straight state tournament and first championship game.

“It’s amazing,” said Plant City starting pitcher Jarod Wingo. “It’s ridiculous. I can’t even tell you how I feel right now.”

This was the first time two Hillsborough County schools faced each other in a baseball final. It is the second state championship in a team sport in two years for Plant City. The boys soccer team won the state title in 2018.

Plant City starter Jarod Wingo fires a pitch Thursday night during the Class 8A state final against Strawberry Crest. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

This was a rematch of an early March regular-season game, which Plant City won 5-3. This time around it was just as competitive.

Wingo, who has been a solid No. 2 pitcher behind senior Parker Messick all season, pitched a complete game and scattered three hits.

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“Once I knew Parker went all seven (in Wednesday’s semifinal) I knew it was going to be all me,” said Wingo, a junior. “I wanted the ball. I was prepared.”

His teammates helped him out in the first inning. With two outs, Cole Cothren singled off starter Eli Garner. He moved to second on a wild pitch. Messick was then intentionally walked and Hunter Emerine was hit by a pitch to load the bases.

Plant City first baseman Parker Messick, left, pitcher Jarod Wingo, center and catcher Hunter Emerine begin to celebrate moments after Emerine throws out the last Strawberry Crest runner. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Tyler Dowdy, who hit two home runs in the semifinal against Hollywood McArthur, singled in two runs for a quick 2-0 lead.

“I have all the trust in the world with Jarod, have since we were 6 years old,” Dowdy said. “I knew once we got those two runs I was comfortable. Strawberry Crest is a scrappy team and I knew they could score runs, but once we scored I went to Jarod and said, ‘Okay, do your thing.”

The Chargers (19-11) finally got to Wingo in the fourth inning. An infield error to start the inning allowed Tanner Kelley to reach second base. He got to third on a fielder’s choice, then scored on a flyout to leftfield by Ben Pues. The Chargers put two runners on after that but were unable to score.

In the sixth, Strawberry Crest got a runner to second with one out, but Wingo was able to pitch out of trouble.

Gatorade and players go flying moments after Plant City defeats Strawberry Crest 3-1 to win the Class 8A state title. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

“Our guys fought hard and left it all on the field,” Chargers coach Eric Beattie said. “Tonight, they were the better team. It was a hard-fought game. They played well.”

In the top of the seventh, the Raiders struck again with two outs. With a runner on first, Cade Shissler hit a grounder between third and shortstop. The throw to first was wild and allowed the third run to score.

Once the final out was made, players threw gloves in the air and piled onto each other on the pitcher’s mound.

“This feeling is indescribable,” Messick said. “We wanted to do it for (the students). They all came out here to watch us.”

Plenty of good sportsmanship to go around between neighboring schools Strawberry Crest and Plant City. After Plant City defeated the Chargers 3-1, Crest rightfielder Ben Pues gives a sincere hug of congratulations to every member of the Raiders. (SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times)

Dowdy, a junior, wanted to win for the seniors.

“It’s insane," Dowdy said. “I told the seniors before the game, ‘This is your last game, do something special.’ It’s going to be hard to play without them next season, but we’ll come together so we can do this again next year."

Thursday was graduation night for Plant City, but the seniors on the field celebrated a state championship instead. The seniors on the team posed for pictures in their graduation caps after the game. They said they would much rather have been on a baseball field making history instead of at the Florida State Fairgrounds for graduation.

“No doubt about it,” Messick said.

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