FORT MYERS — Sebring made the Class 5A state semifinal interesting for a while Monday afternoon, but in the end Jesuit was simply deeper, stronger, more confident and more experienced.
After battling through four innings tied at 1, the Tigers scratched out a run in the bottom of the fifth and sixth innings, enough to seal up a 3-1 victory and move onto Wednesday’s state final at Hammond Stadium against Plantation American Heritage.
Barring any lightning delays, which have been frequent during the first days of state baseball (including an hour Monday), Wednesday’s first pitch will fly at 11 a.m.
Jesuit ace Wes Mendes, who won last year’s state final with a 6-0 victory over Melbourne Eau Gallie, is scheduled to get Wednesday’s start after Jesuit coach Miguel Menendez decided to go with Aden Knowles in Monday’s semifinal.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘Well, you have to make sure you get to the final and you should start Mendes (in Monday’s semifinal),’” Menendez said. “But we felt like Aden was a really good matchup against Sebring and it’s not like Aden isn’t a great pitcher, right? I mean, Aden is committed to North Carolina State. We felt like if we could get 12 outs from Aden that would be perfect and then we also have (Wilson Andersen and Derek Westfall) waiting to step in.”
The Menendez plan worked darn near perfectly. Knowles threw 4 1/3 innings, giving up one run on four hits while striking out three. Andersen and Westfall finished up the final 2 2/3 innings allowing no runs, between, of course, the lightning delay.
“I was just staying locked in on every pitch, treating (Sebring) like they had the best hitters in the world and trying to make my best pitches,” Knowles said. “You can never take anybody for granted, especially at this point. You can’t get out of your groove.”
At the plate Jesuit also kept its focus, battling a tough Sebring pitcher who made the Tigers scratch out each of their runs.
In the second inning, Vincent Decarlo scored after reaching on an error, going to second following a walk and running home on a Jacob Lozano single.
In the fifth inning, Clay Thompson scored after a mix of singles and errors, and in the sixth Noah Sheffield scored after reaching on an infield single, advancing to third on a wild pitch and running home on a throwing error.
“We found a way to get it done today, which is what this team does,” Menendez said. “This team doesn’t panic. They just kind of play, and, you know, it isn’t always pretty, but no matter what they find a way to keep winning and moving onto the next game. This is another great team we have here.”
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Jesuit (27-4 , ranked No. 9 nationally by MaxPreps) now gets a chance to win its seventh state baseball title, but its first in back-to-back seasons.
The challenger, American Heritage, comes in 20-6 and ranked No. 4 in Class 5A after beating Columbia 5-2 in Monday’s first semifinal.
“It should be a good one,” Menendez said. “I feel good about where we are at and how all of our guys are playing. I think last year’s experience will help. We all feel good about our chances.”