BUSHNELL – With Spring Hill American staring down the barrel of elimination Saturday, perhaps the words of former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich resonated in the West Hernando County dugout: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
What followed was a rally and a finish for the ages.
The defending district and state champions tallied seven runs in the fourth and eight more in the sixth before holding on for a gutsy 16-14 comeback nail-biter over South Lake National in the Dixie Baseball AAA Minors (ages 9-10) All-Stars District 6 Tournament final.
Behind the improbable victory, SH American (5-1) not only repeated, but hoisted its eighth district title in this age group since 2002.
Both SH American and SL National (5-2) will advance to the State Championship starting July 12 in Arcadia.
Not only did SH American walk away with the tallest trophy, but host Bushnell also awarded it the tournament’s prestigious Sportsmanship Award.
In a week’s time, SL National raised eyebrows blasting a tournament-high 10 homers over the cozy 185-foot deep fences at the Kenny Dixon Sports Complex.
Skipper Patrick Falcone’s squad, which was ambushed Wednesday night via a four-inning no-hitter by SH American right-handers Jacob Kelly and Aiden Leskauskas, 20-0, roared back with a vengeance Friday behind a 14-6 pasting of SH American.
In Saturday afternoon’s stifling 92-degree temperatures, Falcone’s ‘Bomb Squad’ launched its last three taters – including a pair of solo blasts by Dawson Clark and a three-run homer by Grayson Bishop.
Bishop’s homer highlighted a seven-hit and nine-run bottom of third inning to mushroom a tenuous 1-1 deadlock to 10-1.
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SL National was paced by Nate Williams (four homers) and Logan Peterson (three) – who combined to go 3-for-7 Saturday with four runs batted in.
Despite outhitting SH American, 12-11, led by Dawson’s outstanding 3-for-3 effort featuring three RBI and four runs scored, Coach Falcone admitted late-inning mistakes denied the Lake County team’s chance for its first AAA Minors crown since the millennium.
“We had a lot of mistakes, especially in the last inning,” explained Coach Falcone. “We played sounded baseball for the most part. I’m really proud of each and every player. It was a huge accomplishment for us to get this far.”
On the keys to the game, “We played seven games and our pitching got tired,” pointed out Coach Falcone.
SH American mentor Erik Andress pointed out that he was realist, especially facing a 10-1 deficit.
“It was a battle today,” said Coach Andress. “I’m a realist. I had to fight the negative thoughts and keep preaching to our guys to remember what we practiced.
“I think after what happened last night we came in a little nervous,” detailed Andress. “South Lake can rake; that’s an amazing team. I’ve never seen anything like it. I know after they got up 10-1 they wanted to shut us down 1-2-3 – anyone would. But that’s not what happened.”
On the team’s difference, “Yesterday, I saw a lot of me-me-me,” declared Andress. “Today was different. If someone made an out, someone picked that player up. They stuck together – that’s what great teams do.”
According to Andress the keys to the comeback included Riley Cullum’s gutsy 3 2/3 innings of relief after the ineffective efforts of Talon Bergantino and Leskauskas.
“Cullum was the key,” said Andress. “He doesn’t throw really hard but his off-speed stuff kept South Lake off-balance. He’s a quiet leader out there. He doesn’t make a peep, but the kids all look up to him. He’s one of those kids that stays real even-keel.”
At the plate, SH American collected 11 hits led by Izzy LaRoche, Cullum and Bergantino each collecting two hits.
Through five innings, Bergantino was 0-for-2 with a walk until driving in four runs with a two-run homer and a two-run double in the sixth.
Cullum scored a team-high three runs, including twice in the sixth. LaRoche smacked an RBI single in the fourth and an RBI double in the sixth.
Though Kelly went 1-for-1, he walked four times and plated three runs.
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SL National opened the scoring in the second inning as Dawson coaxed a walk off the left-handed throwing Bergantino. A wild pitch moved Dawson to second before a throwing error permitted him to scamper home.
SH American quickly applied the equalizer. With the bases loaded off Bishop, Jaxon Newhall coaxed a free pass pushing home Kelly.
SL National sent 14 batters to the plate in the third inning off three SH American pitchers, erupting for nine runs.
In the fourth, South Lake’s third pitcher, Williams, couldn’t retire any of the six batters he faced before Clark took over for the final three innings.
Spring Hill came to life by sending 13 batters to plate. Gavin McMurdo, LaRoche and Cullum each collected RBI singles while Bergantino, Newhall, Quintin Hotop and Kelly all received free passes with the bases loaded to push home a run apiece.
Newhall also scored on a wild pitch as SH American crept to within 10-8. Clark launched the first of his two homers in the fourth, 11-8.
In the bottom of the fifth, Nick Self’s RBI single plated Shaver, 12-8 South Lake.
Spring Hill countered with a conga line of batters in the top of the sixth (14). The uprising began with a two-run homer by Bergantino and a closed with a two-run double by Bergantino, 16-12.
“Riley pitched good,” explained the 11-year-old Bergantino. “South Lake is a really big team; they’re huge.”
On Bergantino’s 11th-hour tater, “I wasn’t trying for a homer; I was just really trying to make contact.”
LaRoche had brought the visiting Spring Hill fans to their feet with an RBI double.
LaRoche, responding to the yelps for ‘Girl Power,’ “In my last at-bat all I was trying to do was make contact,” explained the 9-year-old. “No, I never got down even when we were losing 10-1.”
Clark (0-1) faced 24 batters across three frames yielding 10 runs on seven hits, two wild pitches and a game-high nine walks against three strikeouts. All told, South Lake hurlers permitted 16 free passes.
Cullum surrendered a leadoff homer to Dawson to straightway center to open the bottom of the sixth.
A single by Tyler Azcano, two fielder’s choices, plus a hit batter left runners at second and third for the lethal Williams. Williams hit a tapper that Cullum fielded cleanly, but he sailed the relay throw down the right-field line scoring Zach Shoemaker, 16-14.
But with two runners in scoring position, Cullum fanned Collier to conclude the 2½-hour thriller.
In all, Cullum (1-0) faced 16 batters across the final 3 2/3 innings, yielding three runs on seven hits and three walks against three strikeouts.
“Even when we were down, I had faith in my team,” described the 10-year-old Cullum. “My teammates encouraged me the entire game.”
Spring Hill American 16, South Lake National 14
123 45 6 R H E
SHA 010 708 – 16 11 4
SLN 019 112 – 14 12 2
SHA – T. Bergantino, Leskauskas (3), Cullum (3) and Andress.
SLN – Bishop, Collier (3), Williams (4), Clark (4) and Peterson.
W – Cullum (1-0). L – Clark (0-1).
2B – LaRoche, Bergantino (SHA); Peterson, Shaver (SLN).
HR – T. Bergantino (SHA); Clark (2), Bishop (SLN).
Records – Spring Hill American (5-1), South Lake National (5-2).
Dixie Baseball AAA Minors (ages 9-10) All-Stars District 6 Tourney Recap
at Bushnell’s Kenny Dixon Sports Complex
Wesley Chapel Navy – bye
Spring Hill American 9, Brooksville 8 (5.5 Innings)
Spring Hill National 6, San Antonio 5
South Lake National 13, Oak Grinner 0
Bushnell 8, Wesley Chapel 4
Wildwood 10, South Lake American 0
South Lake American – bye
Spring Hill American 11, Spring Hill National 1
South Lake National 15, Bushnell 4 (8)
Wesley Chapel Navy 12, Wildwood 1
Brooksville 15, San Antonio 5
Wesley Chapel Blue 20, Oak Griner 5
Spring Hill American – bye
South Lake National 8, Wesley Chapel Navy 5
Wesley Chapel Blue 3, Brooksville 1
Spring Hill National 8, South Lake American 5
Bushnell 13, Wildwood 7
Spring Hill American 20, South Lake National 0 (4)
Wesley Chapel Navy 7, Wesley Chapel Blue 2
Spring Hill National 9, Bushnell 2
South Lake National 14, Spring Hill National 8
Spring Hill American 4, Wesley Chapel Navy 1
South Lake National 14, Spring Hill American 6
Spring Hill American 16, South Lake National 14
2014 Final District 6 AAA Minors (ages 9-10) Standings at Bushnell’s Kenny Dixon Sports Complex
PL TEAM W L .PCT RS RA
1. Spring Hill American* 5 1 .833 66 38
1. South Lake National* 5 2 .714 78 62
3. Spring Hill National 3 2 .500 32 37
4.(tie) Wesley Chapel Navy 2 2 .500 25 15
4.(tie) Bushnell 2 2 .500 27 35
4.(tie) Wesley Chapel Blue 2 2 .333 29 21
7.(tie) Wildwood 1 2 .333 18 25
7.(tie) Brooksville 1 2 .333 24 17
9.(tie) Oak Griner 0 2 .000 05 33
9.(tie) San Antonio 0 2 .000 10 21
9.(tie) South Lake American 0 2 .000 05 18
TOTALS 21 21 .500
* Denotes will advance to July 12 AAA Minors State Championship in Arcadia.