By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — Seventeen long years have passed since Lemon Bay last earned a region final berth.
There was no state semifinal berth back on that night in 2000, a night that ended in a 17-3 loss to Bishop Verot. Now, in 2017, fresh off routing Lake Placid in last week’s Region 5A-3 semifinal, the Manta Rays aim to rewrite history with their first state semifinal berth in program history.
Lemon Bay will host Hardee in the region final tonight in a highly anticipated matchup of two schools that were district rivals just two seasons ago.
The road to victory certainly won’t be easy for the Manta Rays as Hardee (22-6) comes into the matchup almost as hot as Lemon Bay (18-9). The Wildcats are riding an eight-game winning streak and have won 10 of their last 11 games while the Manta Rays have won 12 of their last 13, including Dunbar’s forfeit in the District 5A-12 semifinals.
But ask any Manta Ray and they’ll tell you — they’re ready to make history.
“We’re well aware of what’s at stake and I don’t think by judging from the players’ demeanor that any of them are intimidated, so I like where we’re at right now,” Lemon Bay coach Casey Hanrahan said.
Tonight will be the last home game for five seniors, including catcher Matt Molinari, who had a bases-clearing triple in the region semifinal win over Lake Placid. Molinari said the journey here has been a long one, a journey all five seniors have looked forward to since freshman year.
“Since freshman year we’ve always been trying,” Molinari said after last week’s win. “We’ve been getting better and better. Finally, as seniors, we get to do it.”
Hardee played the closer game last week, defeating Avon Park 4-1. Lemon Bay had the luxury of playing Lake Placid a fourth time, taking advantage of walks to roll to a 13-0 win in five innings.
But don’t expect that kind of game against Hardee. Hanrahan certainly doesn’t.
“Hardee is going to be fundamentally sound. They’re not going to give us anything. We’re going to have to earn base runners,” Hanrahan said. “They’re not going to walk anybody and they’re not going to make very many errors so it’s going to be a good game. It’s going to be a good matchup. I think they match up well with us on both sides of the ball.”
Trey Fields, who threw a no-hitter in the district championship win over Lake Placid, is expected to start on the mound again for Lemon Bay. The right-handed ace was on his game again last week against the Dragons, giving up only two hits and finishing with six strikeouts.
Hardee will likely throw senior ace Kyle Choate, who is 8-1 with a 1.71 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 14 appearances. Fields might just have to match Choate pitch for pitch and deliver another gem as the Wildcats have six batters in their lineup hitting .300 or better.
“We have some insight on them and we know what we’re up against and I feel good about how prepared our players are to play against this team that’s coming up against us,” Hanrahan said. “It’s just going to be a matter of who makes less mistakes and who wants it more. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”