By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — Hardee lost its composure and Lemon Bay held on for history.
The Manta Rays are headed to their first state semifinal in program history after defeating the Wildcats 6-3 in the Region 5A-3 final Tuesday at Jack Llewelyn Field. They’ll face Region 5A-2 champion Bishop Moore, a 3-0 winner over South Sumter, next Wednesday in Fort Myers.
Lemon Bay took a 6-1 lead into the seventh inning after three Hardee players were ejected at the end of the sixth for a scuffle at home plate. The Wildcats struck for two runs in the top of the seventh on a two-run single by Harrison Mundy before Tyler Kreissler came on in relief and shut the door for the save with the tying run at the plate.
“I’m just overwhelmed with joy right now,” Lemon Bay coach Casey Hanrahan said. “What this team has done this season has been unbelievable. Not just for themselves, but for the high school, the community and everybody involved. It’s been an unbelievable accomplishment for these guys. It got a little stressful at the end but it wouldn’t be baseball if we didn’t make it interesting.”
Trey Fields pitched another great game for Lemon Bay, holding Hardee to three hits in 5 2/3 innings while striking out five to help his squad capture its first region title.
“It feels great being able to put these guys on my back on the mound and carry them to the final four. I just wanted to do it for my team,” Fields said.
Cole Dukes was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a wild pitch to end the sixth inning before things escalated immensely.
After getting tagged out, Dukes was punched by one Hardee player, causing both benches to clear. That Wildcat was ejected immediately before two more were ejected for pushing a Lemon Bay player and throwing the ball at an umpire. While all of it was going down, Hanrahan and his coaches kept their players from getting into it with Hardee and no Manta Ray was ejected in the confrontation.
“There was a lot of tension in this game and a lot of emotions were shown,” Hanrahan said. “I’m just proud of my guys for not only winning a regional championship for Lemon Bay High School but just showing the maturity to not stoop to a level of a player that tags you out and then tries to punch you in the face. I’m just proud of the way we handled ourselves the entire game.”
Lemon Bay fell behind early in the first inning when Hayden Lindsey scored on an error to put Hardee up 1-0. But the Manta Rays settled down in the fourth as Jacob Treece hit an RBI double to tie the game before Tyler Kressler delivered a two-run single that put his team up 3-1.
After surrendering Lemon Bay’s first run, Hardee starting pitcher Kyle Choate threw two straight balls to Fields before getting pulled after three innings of work. He struck out two and gave up three unearned runs on two hits as Hardee committed two errors in the fourth, including a poor pickoff throw by reliever Drew McGuckin that went into center field to set up Kreissler’s big hit.
Fields started the sixth and recorded two outs before getting pulled after walking back-to-back batters. The FGCU signee’s pitch count reached 99 and the Florida High School Athletic Association’s limit is 105. Treece came in and walked the bases loaded before getting out of the jam with a strikeout.
“I didn’t want to leave but I was getting up there in the pitch count,” Fields said. “I just needed to settle in early. I wasn’t as efficient as I have been recently, but I got out there and got the job done and that’s all that really matters.”
LEMON BAY 6, HARDEE 3
Hardee 100 000 2 — 3 5 2
Lemon Bay: 000 330 X — 6 6 3
WP: Trey Fields. LP: Kyle Choate. Leading hitters: (LB) Tyler Kreissler 1-2, 3 RBI; Brandon Gielow 1-3, 2 RBI; Jacob Treece 2-4, 2B, RBI, R; (H) Harrison Mundy 1-4, 2 RBI. Records: Lemon Bay 19-9, Hardee 22-7.