FORT MYERS — The Jesuit High baseball team hit some rocky seas with an off-field incident in March that cost the Tigers nine varsity players, but the remaining players and new additions took little time righting the ship and cruised into Thursday’s Class 5A state championship game.
With an hour to kill after lunch, the Tigers stopped at a sporting goods store, where assistant coach Tim Nalls made a few purchases. A few hours later, the players were in their element at jetBlue Park, taking on Green Cove Springs Clay in the title game.
While Jesuit was at-bat, the Tigers — lined along the top step of the dugout — stood madly churning in an imaginary tide with the freshly bought boat paddles, emblazoned in marker with one word: STROKE.
The Tigers’ offense took to the mantra, ripping 10 hits in a 5-2 win to capture the program’s fourth state crown.
The previous four seasons, Jesuit has sent mashing lineups, top draft prospects, highly recruited pitchers and national ranked teams to the state final four, each time coming away just short with a pair of semifinal exits and two silver medals. It took a team with only four seniors on the roster and seven junior varsity call-ups to finally get the Tigers their first gold medals since 2000.
A surprise story?
Not for the Tigers.
“I wouldn’t sell these guys short because they deserve this as much as anyone else,” coach Richie Warren said. “Yeah, we don’t have the nine Division I guys, the USA team, the first-round picks, the All-Americans, but we had 20 guys who freaking battled their (butts) every day in practices, never gave up in games and played under control. That’s what it takes in playoff baseball.”
The Tigers (27-6) took control early as they made small-ball work, scoring twice in the first inning on four hits — three of which didn’t leave the infield. Kennie Taylor’s single to left plated Nick Ortega for the first run, and Danny Lastra added an RBI single.
The Tigers cruised behind senior left-hander Kasey Radke, son of former major-league pitcher Brad Radke, for the first three innings.
Clay (23-8) took advantage of Radke’s few struggles in the fourth, scoring on a bases-loaded walk and on Jacob Turner’s single. Clay’s rally ended after that hit when Ortega threw a rope to catcher Ryan McCullers, catching a runner too far around third base. McCullers’ throw to Ronnie Ramirez resulted in an out, and the junior caught another runner in a pickle to end the inning.
“I thought (the second out) was it, the play was over,” Ramirez said. “But I heard my team yell ‘two,’ and I looked over and saw two people standing on the bag. I was surprised.”
The Tigers broke the tie in the sixth as McCullers, who has drawn praise from his teammates and coaches as the on-field leader, mashed an RBI double off the “Green Monster” left-field wall at the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, nicknamed Fenway South. Ramirez, who went 3-for-3, added an RBI infield single to make it 4-2.
Steven Lugo produced Jesuit’s fifth run in the seventh with a single that scored Ortega (1-for-3, two runs scored).
“(Our coaches) preached every single day no matter what happens our ultimate goal was winning a state championship,” McCullers said. “Nothing had changed.”
Radke, a University of Tampa signee, pitched a complete game. He ended the fifth and sixth innings with a strikeout, then sealed the championship by picking a runner off first for the game’s final out.
The senior improved to 8-1 and later admitted he never expected to get the ball for a state final, but the suspensions thrust him into a more prominent role in the rotation.
“It was kind of unfortunate that it had to happen that way, but I took it and made the best of it,” Radke said. “I had to step up for the rest of the team, play for everybody, and it worked out.”
For Warren, who won a championship as a Jesuit pitcher in 2000, the season that could have ended in March instead went the distance. The eighth-year coach, who earned his 200th career win in region play, said Thursday’s championship was as sweet as the title he won as a player.
“What can you say? These guys just gave me everything they had, gave all the coaches everything they had,” Warren said. “There was not a day that we took off.”