By BLAKE MCCORMICK
In front of a large traveling fan base, South Walton punched their ticket to the Class A Final Four in Fort Myers with a 2-0 victory at Chipley in the Region 2 title game on May 16.
In the impressive, if methodical, four-phase showcase, head coach Nick Borthwick’s crew used consistent ball contact, athletic fielding, clever base-running, and sturdy pitching to become the first boy’s athletic team in school history to qualify for the state tournament in a team sport.
Offensively, every South Walton batter put the ball in play and eight did so multiple times, putting consistent pressure on a Chipley defensive crew that eventually made just enough mistakes to help the visitors from Santa Rosa Beach score both of their runs.
“We realize that if we put the ball in play, the odds are in our favor,” said South Walton shortstop Austin Garofalo. “There’s only so many plays a defense can make until the ball falls where they aren’t. That happened tonight and we happened to be the one to come out with it.”
With one out and the game still scoreless in the top of the fourth inning, Chase Miles walked to get on base and was subsequently batted in by Hunter Crawley, who smacked a grounder right between the legs of the Chipley second baseman for a 1-0 lead.
In the top of the sixth, Miles hit a grounder just past third and beat a close throw to first. Harris Barton then grounded out, but not before advancing Miles to second. That brought up Aiden Keenan who hit a routine ground ball that a Chipley infielder chose to try and nab Miles at second base instead of taking a sure out with Keenan. The pick off of Miles failed and an error on the toss sent the ball into the outfield, allowing the sophomore to round third. A deep throw home made for a close play at the plate, but the player affectionately known as “Five-O” arched his back just enough to avoid a swinging tag by inches to push the lead to 2-0.
“We kept putting it in play and put some pressure on them,” said Borthwick. “We found some holes and made a big base-running play there to give us a little separation.”
Pitcher Adam Richards gave up two inconsequential hits in the first inning and only surrendered one more the remainder of the game. The coaching staff eagerly wanted the hurler to go the distance, but with two outs in the bottom of the last inning, the senior had reached 104 pitches, and by FHSAA mandate, would not be eligible to pitch for eight days if he continued on the mound.
“Adam Richards is a gamer,” elaborated Borthwick. “I would have rode with him, but that’s the new standard set by the FHSAA to protect players arms, and you know what? That’s the right thing to do. We need to protect these kids’ arms.”
The black-clad fielders from Walton County put on a salty performance, turning two double plays and getting a standout performance from Hunter Crawley, who snagged seven outs, and almost assuredly prevented a runner from getting into scoring position in the third inning with a sliding effort on a hard hit grounder.
“Hunter is a bulldog,” mentioned Garofalo. “Me and him both struggled in the game previously (against Chipley). We weren’t going to let that happen again.”
In the bottom of the final inning, things got turbulent for South Walton’s defense as Chipley got runners on second and third following Richards forced exit for reliever Kai Wilk. Nonetheless, the Seahawks escaped when freshman catcher Drake Roberts made a nifty, hustling play on a bunt for an out.
“Look at Drake Roberts,” bragged Borthwick. “Swinging bunt, tough play, moves to his left, sets his feet, throws a strike to first base and sends us to the Final Four. He handled that pressure situation well. Any mistakes there probably ties the game.”
South Walton improved to 23-6 with the victory and will face off against Madison County(18-12) in one of two Class A state semifinals set to be played on May 24 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. The contest is set for a noon start and follows the semifinal contest between Trenton(25-1) and Sneads(18-11).
“Final Four!” concluded Borthwick as he walked off the field at Chipley. “Anything can happen. We have accommodations ready. We’re going to have the trip of our lives. These young men will never forget this opportunity.”
Team Notes: South Walton, Madison County and Sneads are each making their first trip to the Final Four in baseball in their schools history. Trenton won the 2013 Class A state championship in their only previous trip to the Final Four and the Tigers are the top-ranked team in the state. South Walton is 2-1 in the state playoffs while Trenton is 11-12, Sneads 6-14 and Madison County 5-13. The Class A title game will be played on Thursday, May 25 at 3:35 p.m. Central Time barring any weather delays in Fort Myers.
By BLAKE MCCORMICK