Jesuit wins 10th straight district crown

Jesuit senior AJ Nessler is congratulated by assistant coach Tim Nalls two-run homer put the Tigers up by three (photo by Jess Zanca).

By Chuck Frye

TAMPA – When an opponent opens a door to victory, good teams find a way to sprint through.

With a decade-long string of success, Jesuit’s quality is unimpeachable. And when Freedom’s defense showed some cracks early in Thursday’s Class 5A-6 championship game, the host Tigers took advantage en route to a 4-0 victory.

The triumph earned Jesuit (now 19-8) its 10th straight district title and Miguel Menendez his sixth in a row, a streak that the head coach could attribute to one main factor.

“This is not about the coaches,” he said. “It’s more about the players, especially those from the last two years. They made this what it’s become.”

And it was the players that jumped on the generosity of the Patriots (17-8). When an error extended the bottom of the second inning, the Tigers made it hurt. Savvy base running by junior Grant Jordan, who had singled, earned Jesuit its first run when he hustled to beat Freedom’s throw home after a force out. And with a “fourth out” to play with, leadoff hitter A.J. Nessler used it to drive a 2-1 offering over the right-field fence for a two-run homer and what would become an insurmountable 3-0 lead.

“I was looking for a pitch to drive and I got one,” Nessler said. “As soon as that ball got in the air, it took a little weight off of my shoulders.”

Click here for our photo correspondent Jess Zanca’s full photo gallery.

The outburst was well appreciated by starting pitcher Wes Mendes, who was fighting some control issues but still kept the Patriots off the scoreboard.

“I was a little off,” the junior said. “My off-speed pitch wasn’t really working too well so I had to attack with the fastball. I got out of it but not as smoothly as I wanted to.”

Jesuit junior pitcher Wes Mendes (photo by Jess Zanca).

A less-than-pretty win is still a win, and Mendes managed to get through six scoreless innings, yielding just two hits while striking out four and walking four.

“I trusted my defense (that played errorless ball) and it was all good after that,” Mendes said.

Freedom reliever Marshall Chastain (four innings of two-hit, shutout ball) kept the visitors in the hunt, but insurance came to Jesuit in the third inning when Jake Kulikowski singled and scored on an infield out. Then junior John Abraham closed out the title triumph with a clean seventh.

“From the fourth inning on, we were more like ourselves,” Patriots head coach Tripp Merrell said. “(Errors) happen so you just get through it and move on to the next one.”

Freedom senior shortstop Lucas Richardson gets a force out at second (photo by Jess Zanca).

“We obviously talk about goals going into a season and winning Districts is one of the first,” Menendez concluded. “And with MaxPreps rankings (setting the seeds for Regionals), it’s huge because now we’re ranked No. 1 and all our playoff games will be at home.”

Patriots senior Michael Morrison was tagged with the loss, allowing four runs (one earned) (photo by Jess Zanca).

Those rankings also appear to allow Freedom to continue its program-best season, a drastic turnaround after eight seasons of .500-or-below campaigns.

“If we don’t (qualify), I’ll be very surprised,” Merrell said. “We’ll see (this weekend) if I’ll eat my words.

“We’re just going to go back to work,” Merrell concluded. “We’re a team that’s going to take everybody playing well to win. We’re not going to change much.”

Class 5A-District 6 Championship 

Jesuit 4
Freedom 0

Click here for our photo correspondent Jess Zanca’s full photo gallery.

F 000|000|0 – |0|2|2
J 031|000|x – |4|7|0
W – Mendes (8-1); L – Morrison (2-1)
HR – Nessler (J). Records – F (17-8); J (19-8).