CLEARWATER — Maybe it was confidence or maybe it was the experience of facing Orlando’s The First Academy for the third straight postseason, but Calvary Christian seemed quite comfortable before its Class 4A region final
Players were running circles around the outfield Saturday night, chest bumping and fist-pumping, smiling and loose. Administrators were talking about the number of buses needed and hotel accommodations for the trip to Fort Myers and next week’s state semifinals.
But when the first pitch was thrown by co-captain Josh Emerson for a called strike, the Warriors were all business, even with the comfort of owning two prior victories over the Royals. Playing their trademark aggressive style of baseball kept constant heat on a visiting squad starting two freshmen and an eighth grader, and Calvary broke through early and often to roll to an 8-1 victory and a third straight berth in the state final four.
“We talked to the guys early and we want them to love every moment of this,” Warriors coach Greg Olsen said. “I think they are thankful to be in the regional final game.”
Coaching third base, Olsen might need right shoulder surgery from vehemently waiving in runner after runner to the plate, putting pressure on the Royal outfield in the process. Runners routinely scored from second base on singles while sophomore Tommy White hustled around from first to just beat shortstop Drew Dizney’s relay throw home on junior Vince Smith’s 370-foot double in the second inning for an early, and daunting, 5-0 advantage.
“It's really good, it keeps our blood pumping,” said junior Kyle Flynn of Calvary's attacking style. “We're always ready for what's coming. It's great.”
Flynn contributed a textbook offensive night from the eight hole, rolling a base hit past first base in the second inning, rapping a hard grounder up the middle for an RBI single in the third and lining a single over third baseman Bryce Fisher’s head in the fifth. He scored each time he reached base.
“I wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season, but I just tried my best and stuck with it,” Flynn said, earning his spot a couple of weeks into the campaign. “(Saturday) felt right. I was seeing the fastball good and was able to get on it.”
The offense was contagious as all but one Warrior starter had base hits. Christian Cairo walloped his fourth home run of the year, a two-run shot in the second inning. Sam Gordon drove in a pair with a single and a safety squeeze. Pierce Chambers contributed two hits and a two-out, first-inning RBI to open the scoring. Peter Stavrakis doubled and scored twice.
“Our toughness really showed in two-strike counts,” Olsen said. “We had big hits with two strikes and two outs. We want them to go up ready to swing but be selective, but in (the playoffs) it's not easy. You're going to have to hit with two strikes and we did it.”
And through it all, Emerson enjoyed the support and commanded every corner of the strike zone, keeping batters for TFA (20-9) off-balance as he threw a complete-game three-hitter, striking out nine and walking three.
“Coach (Mike) White and I worked on all three of my pitches — change-up, curve and fastball — and it all came together with my command,” said Emerson, who threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of 26 batters. “I kind of fell off in that area but we put in a little more work there and I think I’m where I want to be coming into the state tournament.”
Now, after the seniors have earned their 102nd career victory, the 24-4 Warriors plan for a Friday rematch against a Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian team that ruined their shot at back-to-back state titles and perfect seasons.
“It is good to go back, but now our focus is on Monday's practice,” Olsen said. “That's what our team does well, and we'll structure our practices to be ready to be at our best on Friday.”
Emerson saw the circumstances a little more emotionally: “We’re really pumped to get another shot at CCA. A lot of seniors want to end on a high note and get some redemption. We’re ready to rock and roll.”
Games at 7 p.m. Wednesday
8A: Plant City at Seminole
8A: Tallahassee Chiles at Strawberry Crest
7A: Osceola at Venice
7A: Viera at Leto
6A: Cape Coral Mariner at Dunedin
6A: Dunnellon at Jesuit
5A: Melbourne CC at Lakewood
At Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Class 4A: Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian vs. Calvary Christian, 7 p.m. Friday