By Scott Lockwood, Venice Gondolier Sun
VENICE — As the Venice Indians baseball squad got off to an unusually slow 2-2 start this season, there was still never much doubt within the team that they’d ultimately end up in the same place they’ve been since the 2012 season: the state Final Four.
That start is nothing more than a distant memory now. A strong regular season and dominant run through the playoffs that landed the Indians both the District 7A-11 and Region 7A-3 titles has Venice poised to begin its final push to repeat as state champs with Class 7A state semifinal matchup against Jacksonville Creekside on Thursday morning in Fort Myers.
“We know this is not an easy thing and Creekside is a very good team,” Venice head coach Craig Faulkner said. “We’re not taking them lightly and we know it’s going to be a battle. We’ve been talking about being fundamentally sound and doing the little things right all the time and going over everything we’ve been doing well. We’re trying to sharpen up on that because this is probably going to be the toughest game we’ve played in the playoffs.”
Creekside, the Region 1 champion that enters the game with a 25-5 record, has recorded six shutouts in their last eight games. Starting pitcher Mitch Campions had a no-hitter and a two-hitter in the regional tournament, and saw his streak of 28 straight scoreless innings snapped in the Knights’ 6-2 regional final win over Tate.
Faulkner said Campion throws in the upper 80’s and has some off-speed pitches to go with a forkball that he uses as his go-to pitch.
“He’s going to be tough,” Faulkner said. “We’ll be ready for him, but it’s going to be a battle.”
Senior outfielder Brent Killam said that Campion is “obviously a very good pitcher,” but the team has seen pitching that is just as good throughout the season.
“Hopefully, he’s going to have his hands full,” Killam said.
Senior catcher Jake Grubbs said the Indians are prepared for anything, including Campion’s forkball and the Knights’ ability to score runs in bunches.
“We’re just going to study him and work through it,” Grubbs said.
For several of the team’s seniors, it’s their third trip to the state finals. Rylee Buckmaster said that experience has helped them teach the younger players what to expect when they arrive on the big stage Thursday.
“We know what the pressure’s like and we know how to perform under it,” Buckmaster said. “We’ve performed under pressure all year — especially with some of these newer kids that we brought up. We just have to play our own game and not let pressure get to us.”
“When you get to the big stage, you’ve got to cope with your emotions and handle failure if you go down,” Killam added. “Being there before has helped me with that.”
Thursday’s starting pitcher will be Caleb Williams, who was the winning pitcher in his first varsity start in last year’s Class 6A title game. Williams has been on fire this postseason, posting a two-hit, complete game shutout over No. 1 Naples in the regional semifinal and posting a combined nine innings of shutout baseball in regional wins over Palmetto Ridge and Brandon.
“You just want to keep rolling,” Williams said. “A lot of guys have been here before and we know the effort that it takes to win a state championship. We’re going to put forth that same effort we have all year — and in the past five years.”
A win over Creekside would put Venice in position to win the school’s fourth state title and fifth overall since 2007.
“We’ve been here before and we know what we have to do,” junior shortstop Shane Shifflett said. “When you’re playing these great teams, you can’t ever take your mind off the game. We’ll play one inning at a time and never stop.”
Several players had trouble finding words to describe what another championship would mean to the school and the community.
“It’d mean a lot to be part of all of the legacies that have been here,” Killam said.
“It’d be great just to be part of the team and know that we all helped contribute to the program’s success,” Buckmaster added.
The first pitch of the Class 7A semifinal against Creekside is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at JetBlue Park in Ft. Myers. The winner of the game will face the winner of the Miami Belen Jesuit and Tampa Gaither for the Class 7A state championship at 12:35 p.m. Saturday.