By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
FORT MYERS — Most teams keep their preseason expectations simple.
It’s usually something like “let’s win the district and see what happens from there.”
But not Lemon Bay.
They expected more from the very beginning.
“At the end of fall ball, last season in November, after our last game, I told these guys we just have to work out a few things and we have the chance to make it to the state playoffs. I’m not lying to you,” Coach Casey Hanrahan said. “When I said that in fall ball, they kind of looked at me. You could tell some of them believed it and some of them thought I was just trying to make them feel good. But I was serious.”
The Manta Rays did just that, as they faced a tough Bishop Moore in the Class 5A state semifinals Wednesday afternoon, but were quickly outmatched on the way to an 8-0 loss.
“I felt like I came out, and I wasn’t ahead in my pitches at first,” starting pitcher/third baseman Trey Fields said. “I feel like I settled in, but I feel like we came out flat. We didn’t want it as much as they did it seemed like.”
Once the season finally began in February, it looked like the state semifinals might be a farfetched goal. Lemon Bay lost its first four games, and was 3-7 at one point before rattling off 10 wins in 11 games.
Despite the slow start, Hanrahan and Lemon Bay never stopped believing.
“So when we started out the season 1-5, that was a setback to us because that’s not what we expected, but we battled through it,” Hanrahan said. “We worked together from the beginning of last year to this point and we just grew as a team and put a lot of pieces together. The expectations were there. When we started the regular season, that set us back, but I think it made us more hungry to prove ourselves.”
And prove themselves they did.
Four Manta Ray hitters hit within a few points of a .400 average or better during the regular season (Tyler Kreissler, .422; Jacob Treece, .400; Fields, .397; Chace Schork, .395)
Lemon Bay won a district championship behind the arm of Fields, who threw a no-hitter for that victory, and it captured the school’s first region baseball title.
Unfortunately for the Manta Rays, they ran into a team that was both efficient and patient on Wednesday.
Bishop Moore pitcher Josh Bates took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before Fields delivered a one-out single to break up the gem.
“It felt pretty good knowing he threw the whole game and almost no-hit us, then being able to ruin it in the last inning,” Fields said.
Bates had the Manta Rays off balance all game. He needed just 80 pitches to cruise through seven innings and had eight strikeouts with just one walk (also in the seventh inning). For six frames, the only player from Lemon Bay to reach base was Brandon Gielow, who reached on an error in the fifth before being thrown out trying to steal second base.
“I think he threw harder than most guys we saw this season,” catcher Matt Molinari said. “We only saw a couple of pitchers at his speed.”
The Hornets displayed patience at the plate and it paid off.
Fields and three relievers issued 11 walks. Five of those free passes ended up scoring with one coming with the bases-loaded.
“I wasn’t expecting that many walks out of the guys we put in there tonight,” Molinari. “They’re usually always consistent. A different atmosphere can change anything.”
Both Fields and Molinari said they feel the future is bright for the program as they leave by graduation. Now that the Manta Rays have proven they can meet the lofty expectations of making it to a state semifinal, it won’t seem like so much of a pipe dream next spring.