Leto coach JJ Pizzio (813Preps file photo)

By Jarrett Guthrie
TAMPA – Leto coach JJ Pizzio was emotional when reached by phone Wednesday night. Not specifically because Leto clawed its way to a 3-2, Class 7A-District 8 semifinal win over a game Hillsborough, but instead the Tampa native and Terriers graduate said the emotions of a pair of losses unexpectedly caught him off guard.

“I just miss Coach Reed and my Dad so much,” Pizzio said. “I had our guys do an exercise we do often before the games where we lay on the field and stare at the sky to clear our minds and focus.”

“But right then it just hit me and I started praying, not for us to win the game, but for those two to be with me, with us tonight.”

Longtime Hillsborough coach Billy Reed passed away in late December, and Pizzio said he looked to his former skipper for advice and cherished him like a father after his own father passed in 1999.

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Pizzio said the game was a battle as Hillsborough junior Nate Gustafson dealt on the mound and held the Falcons in check for five-plus innings.

“Nate pitched his butt off us again,” Pizzio said of Gustafson. “Nothing was going our way, but we kept it close enough to still be in it.”

Gustafson and senior Aaron Jensen provided the RBI hits to give Hillsborough the two-run lead.

Then the Falcons coach said he felt the wind pick up prior to the frame and he felt that was a sign and the coach turned to an unlikely source with a pair of runners aboard.

Junior Bryan Perez has struggled off the field for his three years with the team, and Pizzio said he’d finally became eligible during the year academically. But he didn’t know if Perez had earned the right to get in a game.

“I’m proud of Bryan, but I wasn’t sure he was quite ready to get on the field,” Pizzio said. “But this was the moment (in the sixth) and I put him in to pinch hit, telling him do this for you and for this team.”

Perez answered the call with a two-run triple, and senior Abel Diaz added the eventual decider with a hit to drive him in.

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Junior ace Christian Suarez made his first start in two weeks after coming down with strep throat, and worked five-plus innings in a no decision. Senior Jakob Ryley finished things off working two shutout innings to 6-4 and earn his fifth straight win.

“I didn’t really think about the game, I let the kids do the work,” Pizzio said. “I was good before it started. I felt blessed.”

The Falcons face Gaither, winners over King on Tuesday, in the district final at home on Thursday.