INVERNESS — For the Citrus High senior baseball players, district success hadn’t come their way. In fact, this is the first winning season the Hurricanes have had since reaching the Final Four in 2015.
Fittingly, on Wednesday night they achieved something they also hadn’t done since that season six years ago, earning a regional berth and a spot in a district championship game. Top-seeded Citrus, hosting fourth-seeded Crystal River, came away with a 5-3 victory in a District 4A-5 semifinal.
"I was talking with these guys before the game," Citrus head coach Jon Bolin said, "and I said, ‘You’ve got a chance to accomplish something that hadn’t been accomplished by a Citrus High school team in (six) years. This senior class has a chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been accomplished in (six) years. A chance to win a district title. Get this step out of the way, play the next game, get a chance to win a district title, and win this game; you’ve already put yourself in a good position, win one game you’re in the (regional) playoffs.’
"… I said from Day 1, and I’ve told these seniors how great I feel about them, how I love these guys. That was one of my goals for this group. Lot of these guys I coached on JV when I was the JV coach. I had a chance to see them grow up as seniors. It means a whole lot to me for them to get a chance to play in the playoffs."
The Hurricanes (15-9) will host Tavares, a 15-5 winner over Dunnellon on Wednesday, in Friday’s district championship tilt starting at 7 p.m.
"They’re tough. They played us tough," Bolin said. "They beat us 6-5 over there. We were supposed to play again at our place and we got rained out. I know they pitch well and they’re very scrappy."
First, though, they had to take care of business against the county-rival Pirates (9-16). Coming off a 17-7 win over Lake Weir on Tuesday, Crystal River carried that momentum into the top of the first inning. Three of the first four batters singled, including cleanup hitter Dustin Davis who hit a grounder that took a wildly unexpected hop in front of the third baseman into left field to drive in the game’s first run.
In the bottom of the second, the ’Canes would go in front 2-1 without the benefit of a hit. Two consecutive grounders were booted for errors, then Dalton Denham bunted toward the third-base side of the mound. The pitcher fielded and fired to third, but the throw was too late and the bases were loaded with no outs.
Bryce Pixley followed with a grounder up the middle that the second baseman kicked away while running in front of the bag, allowing two runs to score.
Crystal River avoided further damage when right fielder Wyatt Pochis made a long run and diving catch of a fly ball down the right-field line for the third out. The Pirates tied it at 2-2 in the third on a two-out, RBI single that landed in front of the left fielder off the bat of Anthony Agate.
A two-out rally in a three-run fourth proved the turning point for Citrus. Cason Williamson walked, stole second and scored on a single to right field by senior Brycen Kersh.
Senior Tim Flippen doubled, Cristofer Walley was intentionally walked and yet another senior, Mikey McSharry, singled up the middle for two RBI.
"It means a lot. We haven’t done this since the first time I’ve been here, four years," McSharry said. "We got shut down last year, we got off to a slow start. We were picking it up but we didn’t get to finish, so it means a lot.
"We swung them pretty good. We hit them at defenders a lot. But we’re swinging the stick all right."
Meanwhile, Flippen went to the mound to start the fourth and the tall righty proceeded to retire eight of the 10 batters he faced, with two reaching on errors and four striking out. Those errors led to an unearned run that scored on a wild pitch in the sixth.
"I feel good, I haven’t done this before. It’s a very nice feeling," Flippen said of reaching regionals. "Our chemistry, us just talking with each other, bonding, it really helps.
"... I felt really good. I threw some really hard fastballs tonight."
The lefty Walley relieved Flippen and got the final four outs, all on strikeouts, working around a walk and a hit batter in the seventh.
"It’s disappointing. We’ve had a good game plan the past week or so of practice and last night’s game," Crystal River first-year head coach Jimmy Metz said. "… We had errors and that’s what cost us the game. We had our breakdowns and tried to fight back. We had a bunch of missed opportunities. I think we had bases loaded twice and couldn’t get anything in. During the last inning we threatened again and just couldn’t get the job done. We shot ourselves in the foot all night.
"But that’s building blocks. That’s building blocks going forward. It’s a young team, so it’s a good experience for them. We’re going to be good to go in the future."