This wasn’t the fairytale ending Hernando had hoped to write.
A Leopard team that started eight seniors in Friday night’s Class 5A, Region II final at Emerson Field was seeking its second trip to the Final Four in three years.
But visiting St. Johns-Creekside, traveling three hours to play its third game in five days, had other ideas.
The Knights jumped out in front early, got to Hernando starter Trae Ratliff in the middle innings, and received an outstanding start from their typical closer, lefty Michael Gray.
It all added up to a 7-2 victory that sent Creekside, in its fifth year of existence, to its first state semifinal appearance, and the Leopards to their third Elite Eight loss in four tries the past four seasons.
“We got beat. The better team won tonight,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said. “Their team did an outstanding job putting the ball in play and we didn’t do as good a job as we have been at putting it in play.
“We chased a little bit, but that type of pitcher (Gray) makes you chase. That’s a solid team. They out-coached us. They outhustled us.”
Hernando (24-6) came in having won 12 straight and playing as crispy as it had in recent seasons.
Thanks to the persistent rain last week, Creekside (20-9) had its quarterfinal delayed until Monday, and turned around to play its semifinal on Tuesday.
The Knights entered this game with a team batting average of .278, yet exhibited an offensive prowess that belied the numbers.
“Our goal was to stick to what we’ve done the whole year, keep it close, get guys on base, go station to station and make things happen, and that’s what happened tonight,” Creekside head coach Luke Marabell said.
Despite Lawson’s eye-popping numbers, 11-0 with a 0.27 earned run average, Ratliff was hardly viewed as a significant step down, coming in 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA.
However, Creekside struck quickly, when the second batter of the game, catcher Matt Allen, went the other way for a solo home run off the scoreboard in right-center.
Ratliff earned redemption in the bottom half, lacing a base-loaded single to left to tie the score.
The Leopards still had the sacks full with one away, but Gray ended the threat inducing a force out at home and recording a strikeout.
Allen struck again in a critical three-run third, hitting a double that took a hop off the right-center field fence, allowing Dillon Reed to score from first.
Connor Michalski followed with a single to shallow right, and a bad throw home brought in courtesy runner Blake Morgan. Michalski eventually came around on a passed ball.
The Knights tacked on two more in the fourth, on Reed’s single up the middle and Michalski’s groundout to second, a potential double play that was mishandled.
Ratliff, pitching for the first time in two weeks, ended up going six innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on six hits, three walks and a hit batter. He struck out eight.
“He was overthrowing it,” Sims said. “He really hadn’t settled in until the fifth or sixth. He was trying too hard to make the perfect pitch. A couple of balls find a hole and there’s a tendency for a pitcher to do that.”
That provided plenty of cushion for Gray. Creekside had someone warming in the bullpen throughout the first few innings. Gray, though, never found himself in serious trouble. He allowed only two hits and a walk from the second through the fifth inning.
“They took a shot to the face,” Sims said of his players. “It stunned them for three innings offensively and we gave (the Knights) some easy outs to let them get settled deeper in the game.”
After striking out the first two batters in the sixth, Gray allowed singles to Rich Wilkes and Eloy Ramirez.
That brought up ninth-place hitter Garrett Treverton, with a chance to load the bases for dangerous leadoff man Christian Arroyo. Instead Gray escaped via a fly ball to left.
When Arroyo doubled to start the seventh, Gray finally exited. He gave up two runs over six innings, on eight hits and two walks with eight strikeouts.
According to Marabell, it was only Gray’s second start all year. The senior improved to 6-0 overall.
“His ball has got a little bit of run to it, and that played in our favor with the umpire’s strike zone,” Marabell said.
“It’s history. The last three games has been history for us,” said Marabell, whose team was making its first regional final appearance. “This has been a work in progress the last four or five years.
“We’ve been chipping away. The young guys who played have been doing it for four years. We knew it’d take a couple of years to do it. This wasn’t an overnight success story.”
The Knights will play Estero on May 22 in the state semifinals, at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. Estero upset defending state champ Plantation-American Heritage on Friday, 3-2.
As for the Leopards, they could only take solace in all they had accomplished to reach this point. No county team had previously gone to the Elite Eight as much as twice in a row.
“I love this group because so many have been in the program all four years that we’ve got to the regional final,” Sims said. “As a senior class our goal was to get back to this game with an opportunity to move on.
“To say this was just another game would be ludicrous. They’ve put in a lot of work. What I’m most proud of is this was the easiest senior class to coach and teach the game of baseball.”
St. Johns-Creekside 7, Hernando 2
Class 5A, Region II recap
Hernando 5, Wesley Chapel 0
Eustis 3, Pasco 1
Green Cove Springs-Clay 11, Citra-North Marion 0
St. Johns-Creekside 8, Palatka 4
Hernando, 3 Eustis 1
Creekside 8, Clay 4
Creekside 7, Hernando 2