Before a single postseason pitch is thrown, one thing is already assured. At least one county team will advance to regionals next week.
On Tuesday, Central hosts Springstead in a Class 6A, District 6 semifinal at 7:30 p.m., with a spot in Friday’s title game and a regional berth on the line.
Beyond that certainty, there’s plenty to doubt as five county teams participate in three district tournaments throughout the week. It may seem like a coaching cliché, but there’s precedent to prove that anything can truly happen.
Case in point, the matchup between the second-seeded Bears (10-14) – who will host the tournament’s semifinals and final – and the third-seeded Eagles (14-8).
These two local rivals met twice in the regular season, with Central winning both times – 6-3 at home on Feb. 22 and 7-0 at Springstead on April 5.
So if form holds, the Bears should earn their first trip to regionals since 2009, right? Except that Central’s two victories already go against the grain.
As their records would indicate, over the course of the season the Eagles have been the better team. They own quality wins over Hernando and Land O’ Lakes. They swept the top seed in 6A-6, Citrus.
By contrast, the Bears lost twice to both Hernando and Citrus, and fell 9-2 to Land O’ Lakes on Wednesday. They’ve just had Springstead’s number.
“Obviously beating Springstead is a tough thing to do,” Central head coach Al Sorrentino said. “Doing it three times in one season will be tough. But we’ve just got to throw strikes and play defense. That’s what we’ve concentrated on all year long and it’s kept us in games.”
The biggest weapon the Bears have used is left-handed pitcher Trevor McKenna. The junior is 3-5 with a 3.50 earned run average, but 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in two starts against the Eagles.
McKenna tossed a no-hitter in the second contest between these two clubs, striking out eight in seven innings.
“He’s a good pitcher,” Springstead head coach Jim Diven said. “We’ll probably switch things up a little bit, maybe be a little more patient. I do know it’s tough for one pitcher to beat a team three times in a row.
“We feel like we’re the stronger team. He is vulnerable and hopefully we’ll get to that weak spot somehow, some way, wherever it is because we haven’t found it yet.
“He’s a lefty. Lefties are tough to hit no matter what. He’s got excellent control. He’s got a curveball. He keeps it on the outside corner of the plate very well. And he’s got an excellent change-up. He’s just a good little pitcher.”
Diven said he was unsure who would get the ball on Tuesday, but it will likely be between Brandon Brosher (3-2, 1.79 ERA) and Ryan Nicoll (2-0, 0.55 ERA).
Sorrentino admitted there was no use playing things close to the vest and confirmed McKenna would start, saying, “I think the whole world knows he’s our number one guy.”
How this whole tournament will play out is hard to handicap. If fourth-seeded Lecanto defeats fifth-seeded Ocala-West Port on Monday as expected, it would set up an all-Citrus County semifinal with the Panthers facing Citrus on Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Central and Springstead have each split with Lecanto in the regular season. Though the Bears have lost to Citrus twice, both times they blew leads.
“We’ve been talking as a team all year long, our goal is to make the (regional) playoffs,” Sorrentino said. “We wanted to put ourselves in one of the top three spots so we’d be in a position to throw our best guy against whoever it is, and not have to use him in a 4/5 game just to get in that spot.
“Record-wise, people won’t be impressed by us, but we’ve been in just about every ballgame. It comes down to whether we can execute or not.”
Diven, in his first year at the helm, has believed all along that the Eagles can capture a district championship as they did in 2011.
At times Springstead has looked the part of serious contender. Then there were some head-scratching losses, such as the ones to Central and another to Nature Coast.
“I believe sometimes we lose intensity. I think that’s what happens,” Diven said. “The bottom line, we have to shake that off or we won’t be around. The good thing is we seem to rise to the occasion when it truly means something.
“Lecanto, Citrus, Central, Springstead, any team could win those games. Any one of those teams could beat any of the other teams. It’s pretty evenly matched.
“I know I want to win it. I think we probably should be the number one seed. We gave that away. I think we’re the team to beat, or close to it.”
Entering the 5A-7 Tournament, host Eustis and Hernando appear on a collision course for Friday’s 7 p.m. championship game.
The top-seeded Panthers went a spotless 10-0 in district play. The second-seeded Leopards (20-5) swept through everyone besides Eustis.
Yet the Panthers were supposed to be a powerhouse last year, only to lose to fifth-seeded Tavares in the semifinals.
The Bulldogs then upended Hernando for the title, though the Leopards gained redemption downing Tavares in the Sweet 16.
“You look at all six teams involved and all six teams have a pitcher where when they’re matched up with other pitchers in the district, whoever has the best night seems to come out on top,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said.
“You have to bring a certain maturity and play the entire game.”
The Leopards had won two straight district championships before settling for second in 2012, and have reached at least the Elite Eight three straight seasons.
They are almost exclusively senior-laden, paced by Division I signees Christian Arroyo (University of Florida) and Brandon Lawson (USF).
Both of their numbers jump off a page. Arroyo is hitting .511 with 10 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, 28 runs batted in and 33 runs scored.
As for Lawson, the right-hander is 7-0 on the mound, with a miniscule 0.28 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 49.2 innings.
It could be him on the mound when Hernando faces the winner of Tuesday’s game between third-seeded Dunnellon and sixth-seeded Tavares, in a semifinal Wednesday at 4 p.m.
Also, the Leopards have momentum, riding an eight-game winning streak, including three this past week over Springstead, Land O’ Lakes and Lakeland.
“We’re playing pretty good baseball right now,” Sims said. “We’ve got everybody healthy, rested and ready to go. That’s a good thing.
“It’s a new season. We’ve prepared that way for 18 years. We work hard all year long to be mentally prepared for districts and to be ready to play. I think they are.”
Tackling Eustis, however, is another matter. Despite the recent run of success, the Panthers are one demon Hernando hasn’t vanquished.
Over the past three seasons against the Lake County club, the last two within 5A-7 together, the Leopards are 0-5. This year they’ve lost 8-3 in Eustis and 3-2 at home.
The caveat is that Lawson did not pitch in either of those meetings. If he goes in the semifinals, he wouldn’t figure to be available should Hernando advance to the final.
The Leopards do have a strong second option on the mound in senior right-hander Trae Ratliff (5-1), and Eloy Ramirez and Kyle Kilbourne have both been solid.
Of course the Panthers have ample pitching depth of their own. Entering Friday’s game against Leesburg, they had a team ERA of 1.80.
“They’re a solid baseball team. They’ll be in every game because of their pitching staff,” Sims said. “They’re in the opposite bracket of us. Right now our concentration is playing Dunnellon or Tavares.”
Eustis may have to go through Nature Coast (11-13) first. The Sharks, seeded fifth, battle fourth seed Crystal River Tuesday at 4 p.m. The winner squares off with the Panthers in a semifinal Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Nature Coast went 1-2 versus the Pirates this season, taking a 7-4 triumph at home March 1, then falling in Citrus County on March 19, 4-3, and on March 27 in the Crack of the Bat Tournament at Groveland-South Lake, also 7-4.
“I think Crystal River and us, it just depends on who comes to play,” Nature Coast head coach Vito Tambasco Sr. said. “If we don’t make any errors, we’re going to beat them.
“Win that first game (is the goal). Last year we only won seven games. This year we’ve won 11. We’re losing a couple of seniors, but we’re still gaining young players. The system is moving along rapidly.
“Next year I think we’ll be a team to reckon with, I really believe that. To win the first game would be positive momentum.”
The Hornets are seeded fifth after going winless in district action, taking on host and fourth-seeded Mount Dora at 6 p.m. The winner faces top seed South Sumter Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“We’re building toward what we want to do,” said Weeki Wachee head coach Patrick McHugh, whose team went 0-21 last year, its initial varsity campaign. “I think we’re capable of going out and getting a win, if not two, but that depends on what team shows up for us.
“We’re still very young varsity baseball experience-wise. The kids are just getting used to the speed of the game and all the facets of what it takes to succeed in varsity baseball. It’s starting to show in the results.”
At a Glance
What – Class 6A, District 6 Tournament
Who – No. 1 seed Citrus, No. 2 Central, No. 3 Springstead, No. 4 Lecanto and No. 5 Ocala-West Port
Where – Central High (semifinals and final)
When – Monday: West Port at Lecanto, 7 p.m.; Tuesday: Citrus vs. West Port/Lecanto, 5 p.m. and Central vs. Springstead, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday: Championship game, 7 p.m.
At Stake – District championship and berth for the top two teams in 6A-Region II quarterfinals on May 1.
What – Class 5A, District 7 Tournament
Who – No. 1 Eustis, No. 2 Hernando, No. 3 Dunnellon, No. 4 Crystal River, No. 5 Nature Coast and No. 6 Tavares
Where – Eustis High, 1300 E Washington Ave., Eustis
When – Tuesday: Nature Coast vs. Crystal River, 4 p.m. and Dunnellon vs. Tavares, 7 p.m.; Wednesday: Hernando vs. Dunnellon/Tavares, 4 p.m. and Eustis vs. Nature Coast/Crystal River 7 p.m.; Friday: Championship game, 7 p.m.
At Stake – District championship and berth for the top two teams in 5A-Region II quarterfinals on May 2.
What – Class 4A, District 6 Tournament
Who – No. 1 South Sumter, No. 2 Ocala-Trinity Catholic, No. 3 Umatilla, No. 4 Mount Dora and No. 5 Weeki Wachee
Where – Mount Dora High, 700 North Highland St., Mount Dora
When – Monday: Weeki Wachee vs. Mount Dora, 6 p.m.; Tuesday: Trinity Catholic vs. Umatilla, 4:30 p.m. and South Sumter vs. Weeki Wachee/Mount Dora, 7:30 p.m.; Thursday: Championship game, 7 p.m.
At Stake – District championship and berth for the top two teams in 4A-Region II quarterfinals on May 1.