Montada’s stick leads Dragons to region final win

Jefferson junior Alejandro Montada spreads his arms wide waiting for his charging teammates after driving in the winning run, and sending the Dragons to the state final four.

By Jarrett Guthrie

TAMPA – In the final days of March, Jefferson junior Alejandro Montada thought his season had come to an abrupt end as the Dragons starting catcher went down to an ulnar collateral ligament sprain.

Luckily for Montada, and moreover luckily for the Dragons, that simply wasn’t the case.

Wednesday night, in Jefferson’s Class 5A-Region 2 final showdown with Land O’Lakes the stout-slugger, who has served as the team’s designated hitter since the injury, reached for a pitch away and slapped a chopper to the right side of the infield, allowing pinch-runner Charles Fowler to burst off of third base on contact and race across the plate as the Dragons battled to a 6-5, walk-off win, earning a trip to next week’s FHSAA final four.

“I knew from the moment they told me I couldn’t throw until June that this would be hard,” Montada said. “I knew I had to find a way to help my team somehow.

“I honestly thought I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore this season, but I just had to. I’m a junior, and if I can only do it with my stick, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Charles Fowler was off on contact and crosses the plate, scoring the winning run for Jefferson.

Montada proved invaluable throughout for Jefferson (19-10), walking in his first plate appearance and scoring his team’s first run, giving his team a short-lived lead with an RBI sac fly in the fifth and waiting with open arms for his team to mob him after winning the game.

“I haven’t talked to Ale one time about having to change his role for this team, because he is that kind of kid,” Dragons head coach Spencer Nunez said. “He comes every day, gets his work in and when he leaves the field every day, he goes to the gym or the cage. That’s just him. He works his butt off, and I’m so proud of that kid.”

Land O’Lakes (19-9) proved a formidable foe, as the Gators were up for the challenge in the see-saw action of the night. LOL took advantage of two errors in the first as a Robert Kranendonk single scored the first run, and Tim Dunn crossed on one of the two Dragons’ errors.

Land O’Lakes junior Tim Dunn is welcomed back to the dugout after scoring in the first inning.

The Dragons answered in the second with an RBI single by Dylan DeGusipe and an RBI ground-out from Yaidel Perez to tie it.

Dylan Makowski walked and scored on another Jefferson error in the fourth, only for the Dragons to answer again in the home-half with Perez driving in his twin brother Yadiel.

Senior Yadiel Perez dives into home, scoring in the fourth inning off his brother, Yaidel’s single.

Jefferson took a two-run lead on Montada’s RBI sac fly and a run-scoring double by Jaiden Duarte (2-for-2, BB, run, stolen base) in the fifth. But this time it was the Gators answering the lead change with runs on a wild pitch and a sac fly from Brian Holiday in the sixth.

Land O’Lakes starting pitcher Brian Holiday.

Neither starting pitcher factored in the decision, with Jefferson’s Matthew Johnson working through five-plus innings to strike out eight, and allowing just two hits while being tagged with four runs (but just one earned). Johnson, bumping up against his pitch-count limit went down in the sixth to a calf cramp, but eventually got up and faced one more hitter.

“He is just a true competitor right now,” Nunez said. “I would say at the beginning of the year, he sees those two or three unearned runs and kind of melts down, but that’s over with and I never saw even a glimpse of that tonight. He kept his composure, and since that Hillsborough game in districts he’s been one-of-a-kind and I like him against anyone right now.”

On the other side, the state strikeout leader Holiday added four punchouts to his total, finishing the season with 157, but was tagged with five earned runs in the no-decision.

Dragons junior Julian Vargas is fired up racing to first after his seventh-inning single – his first knock of the season – pushed the eventual winning run to third.

As the seventh inning came, the Dragons turned to junior Julian Vargas (who closed out the team’s region semifinal win at Jesuit last week) and he delivered with a 1-2-3 inning. But needing Vargas to possibly return to the mound if the game went to extras, the junior got just his second plate-appearance of the season with one on in the seventh. Vargas failed to advance the runner on two botched bunt attempts, but did his job moving Fowler to third with a single, making him 1-1 with a walk on the year.

“Shoot, I have one more year left of high school,” Vargas said with a big grin, “I might as well just start hitting.

“My coach told me, ‘you’re bunting,’ and in the back of my mind I was like, man, I want to hit. I guess it worked out and I got my hit.”

Nunez acknowledged maybe his junior is right, but for now his service on the mound has been stellar as he moves to 2-2 on the mound.

“That kid just, shoot I can say offensively now, too, he just comes through for us,” Nunez said. “And the way he pitches, he has ice water in his veins. What else can I say?”

The Dragons reach the state final four for the first time since claiming the 2018 Class 6A state title – a first for the program.

Nunez is in just his first year as the Jefferson head coach, and lost his father Pat Nunez last December when the longtime area coach died from complications related to renal failure. He spoke to his team after the game about the No. 21 jersey that the team has had hung in the dugout all season. The Dragons now stand at 19 wins, two more – 21 wins – would claim a state title.

“I want that more than anything in this world right now,” Nunez said. “I can tell you he has a hand in this and that’s why we bring his jersey out here every game. That’s who we are playing for this year, we dedicated this season for him and these boys are showing him a pretty good ride.”

Jefferson will travel to Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium next Tuesday for the Class 5A state semifinal, where the Dragons will face Lynn Haven Mosely (24-5), winners 13-1 over Ponte Vedra. The state semifinal game is set for 10 a.m. with the championship set for Wednesday the 26th at a time yet to be determined.

Seniors Yaidel & Yadiel Perez, Javier James and Matthew Johnson mob Alejandro Montada after he walks off the win for the Dragons in the seventh inning.

Jefferson 6
Land O’Lakes 5

LOL 200|102|0 – |5|2|1
Jef   020|120|1 – |6|6|3
W – Vargas (2-2); L – Pimentel (1-2).
2B – Duarte (Jef). Records – LOL (19-9); Jef (19-10).