Dukes powers Wharton to region win over Wiregrass Ranch

Wharton senior Elijah Dukes leaps in excitement after his fifth inning, two-run double gave the Wildcats the lead in Tuesday’s 6A-Region 2 quarterfinal win against Wiregrass Ranch.

By Jarrett Guthrie

NEW TAMPA – About the only thing wrong with the bat Wiregrass Ranch head coach Marshall McDougall asked the umpire crew to inspect in the sixth inning, was it was probably hot to the touch after Wharton senior Elijah Dukes torched a three-run bomb over the fence in right field to ice a 7-2 Wildcats victory in the FHSAA Class 6A-Region 2 quarterfinals.

The homer (his sixth of the season) wasn’t even Dukes biggest impact on the game. It also wasn’t the two-run double that gave Wharton (20-7) the lead in the fifth inning, and it wasn’t the great effort shown on a diving catch in foul territory in the top of the fifth.

At the request of Wiregrass Ranch head coach Marshall McDougall, Wharton coach Michael Burgess gives the umpire crew a look at Dukes bat.

Dukes biggest impact came mid-inning after Wiregrass Ranch (14-9) took a two-run lead in the top of the fifth, leading the Wildcats senior to gather his teammates before their at-bats and lit a fire in the squad that pushed Wharton to the win.

“After they scored those two runs, Dukes came in and pulled the team together, and showed a lot of maturity and leadership there,” first-year Wharton head coach Michael Burgess said. “And we got on his back and he put out the closing chapter.”

The two squads, who despite being in the same district, faced off for the first time this season in Tuesday’s game and both starting pitchers worked around early base-runners to keep things scoreless through four innings.

Wiregrass Ranch senior Mason McDougall threw four scoreless innings, before running into trouble in the fifth inning.

The fifth inning started with Dukes hustling toward the left field line and making a grab in foul territory, barrel-rolling through the catch and holding the ball-in-glove up the whole way. But the Bulls chipped away on Wharton senior Evan Chrest as Chris LeBron singled on a flyball to center. The Wildcats looked like they would get out of the inning clean with a groundball to shortstop, but Wharton only picked up one out as the throw from second baseman Jake Turer sailed over the head of first baseman Billy Eich. The Bulls made the extra opportunity hurt as Mason McDougall and Chase Gilligan singled to load the bases, setting up senior Joe Benigno to give Wiregrass Ranch a two-run lead with a groundball single through the left side.

Chrest wiggled out without further damage, and Dukes rallied a players-only meeting in front of the dugout.

“I just told them to have quality at-bats, take them one at a time and make sure your at-bat is good – don’t worry about anyone else’s at-bat,” Dukes said. “Because if your at-bat is good it’s just going to continue. It’s like poison, it just spreads.”

Asked if he had any internal concerns after falling behind, Dukes said confidently.

“I knew that those two runs weren’t anything to worry about,” he said. “We’ve put up eight runs in an inning before, we have a lot of confidence and we never give up.”

Wharton’s response was immediate, as senior Carson Mohler (who had earlier sent a rocket to second base to catch a stealing runner from behind the dish) walked to start the home-fifth. Henry Griffith (2-for-3) cut the lead in half with a double he banged off the wall in center field, followed by a hit-by-pitch to Justis Meadows, a David Limbach single and a game-evener on a flyball single from Quentin Meadows. Then Dukes stepped to the plate, worked the count full and slapped a double to the gap to give his team the two-run advantage it needed for the win.

Henry Griffith connects on his double off the wall in center, driving in the Wildcats first run of the night.

That was all the support Chrest needed, as the Jacksonville signee returned for his sixth and final inning and finished his night with his seventh strikeout.

“It was very important (to limit the damage) because we hadn’t scored yet,” Chrest said. “I knew I had to buckle down and get the outs.”

Wharton starting pitcher Evan Chrest struck out seven in six innings of work to earn the win.

Chrest’s outing, and the resilience he showed impressed his head coach.

“It’s amazing having a dog like that, and that is what Evan is – a dog,” Burgess said. “He goes out there and gives you 110%, whether he is up or down. He competed, no matter what and that is all you can ask of your starting pitcher.”

Returned to the dugout, Dukes again rallied his teams telling them to add some more, and also added a request, saying: “Get me one more (at-bat).”

His team responded with a single from Justis Meadows and a walk drawn by Limbach, before Dukes would do damage with his three-run shot.

“I heard coach say, ‘get on a fastball, get on a fastball,’” Dukes said. “I got a little out in front of it, but I had the strength to get it over the gate and get my team some insurance. Their guys threw a good game, but I had to get my teammates up and we battled back and won the game.”

“I called it in the dugout, actually,” Chrest said. “I said, ‘Dukes needs to hit a homer right here,’ and right on cue he put a nice swing on one.”

The win sets up another showdown with Strawberry Crest for the Wildcats, as Wharton will host the region semifinal on Friday. Two weeks ago, Wharton came away with a 4-3 win against the Chargers in regular season play.

“Right now, it’s the playoffs, and I really don’t want to go home,” Dukes said with a smile. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep helping my team.”

Class 6A-Region 2 Qtr ⚾

Wharton 7
Wiregrass Ranch 2

WR 000|020|0 – |2|8|1
W    000|043|x – |7|8|1
W – Chrest (6-2); L – Mas. McDougall
2B – Oliver (WR); Griffith, Dukes (W); HR – Dukes (W). Records – WR (14-9); W (20-7).