Jesuit turns away scrappy Sebring in 3-1, 5A semifinal win

Jesuit junior Aden Knowles celebrates his inning-ending strikeout in the fourth inning. Knowles allowed just one hit in his 4 1/3 innings of work.

By Chuck Frye, Staff Writer

FORT MYERS – Surprisingly, the top of the Jesuit order got off to a slow start in its Class 5A final four tilt Monday against scrappy underdog Sebring.

But considering how deep the Tigers’ lineup is, that lack of production was just a momentary concern. Ably supported by its traditionally strong defense and lights-out bullpen, Jesuit finally spread its offense upward which allowed the top seed to pull away from the Blue Streaks just enough for a come-from-behind 3-1 victory.

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The six-time state titlist Tigers (27-4) will defend their crown Wednesday morning against two-time champ Plantation American Heritage, which is making its first appearance in the championship since a 2019 loss to Calvary Christian.

Aggressive play by Jesuit was its undoing in the early stages, setting up but eventually shutting down an opportunity for the lead in the fourth inning, but finally created enough cracks in the leaky foundation of Sebring (24-7) to thrive. From there, freshman reliever Wilson Andersen and senior closer Derek Westfall had just enough of a comfortable environment to lock up the contest.

Jumping on the second of three Sebring miscues, the Tigers grabbed the lead in the bottom of the fifth. Third-hole batter Grant Jordan was able to get on top of a Rhett Vaughn first-pitch fastball and line it through the shortstop hole to score No. 9 batter Clay Thompson, who lead off the frame and reached on a soft liner off the tip of third baseman Cole Travers’ glove.

“I looked for something to hit for once,” said Jordan, who flew out his two prior at-bats. “I got it and stayed with that.”

Then just before a pair of lightning delays shut down play for an hour, Florida State commit Noah Sheffield used 270 feet of energy to manufacture a key insurance run bottom-six. Sheffield just legged out an infield single on a grounder up the middle then rounded second and sprinted toward third when a wild pitch was momentarily lost by the Sebring catcher. A throw to try and nab the junior there ended up flying into leftfield, allowing him to trot home and increase the Tigers’ advantage to a more secure 3-1 count.

When asked if the base coach had put up the stop sign at second, Sheffield said with a laugh: “I can’t remember. I was just hustling around the bases trying to get a run in.”

“(Sheffield got) a leadoff infield single using his speed, he makes a good read on a ball in the dirt to go to third then they throw it away,” said Tigers head coach Miguel Menendez. “We tack on a third run which let us kind of settle in and finish the game off.”

Tigers junior Noah Sheffield took second and third on a wild pitch, drawing a throw that sailed into left allowing him to score an insurance run in the sixth.

Through it all, Andersen was throwing comfortably, stepping in for starter Aden Knowles (4 1/3 innings of four-hit ball with two walks and three strikeouts) and pounding the strike zone, inducing fly ball after fly ball off the Blue Streaks’ bats to finish four-for-four with the batters he faced.

“There’s been a lot of opportunities to pitch in a lot of big games and it helped me in this moment,” the freshman explained. “It could’ve been anybody on this team (that came in to pitch), it just happened to be me. It’s been good.”

Freshman Wilson Andersen recorded four outs without allowing a hit, earning a win in relief in the state semifinal game.

Finally, Westfall yielded a one-out single to George Sebring but rifled a pair of strikeouts to strand the junior there, end the game and garner his seventh save of the year.

“It was a 12-out game,” Menendez explained. “If we could get to 12 outs with (Knowles), we could turn it over to Wilson, have Derek on the back end to close it out, and try to keep them under 45 pitches to be ready to go on Wednesday.

“It’s been a huge security blanket. Knowing I have Wilson and Derek … and we have other guys that don’t even get to pitch a ton … we know we’re going to have a chance to be pretty successful. It allows us to maybe gamble a little bit and change some things.”

Closer Derek Westfall allowed a single, but ended the game with a pair of strikeouts to pick up his seventh save of the season.

But to get there, Jesuit had to overcome a strong start from a Sebring team playing in the final four for the first time since 2007. In the top of the second, freshman Cole Travers dropped a seeing-eye fly down the rightfield line just in front of Jake Kulikowski’s dive for a triple, then scored on the next pitch as Dalton Percy’s infield single netted the senior his 20th RBI of the season.

Knowles stepped up from there, stranding a pair of subsequent runners to set up a Tiger rebound on an unearned run in the bottom of the frame. Vincent DeCarlo (who also singled) reached on an error and set the stage with some savvy base running, tagging up and advancing to third base on Zane Pestalozzi’s fly to the base of the leftfield wall. Junior Jacob Lozano followed with a two-out RBI flare to shallow rightfield to bring the sophomore home.

Jacob Lozano flared an RBI single into right field to tie the game at 1-all in the second.

“We have an experienced group that has been self-motivated all year to get back to this point,” Menendez concluded. “Grant (Jordan), Jake (Kulikowski) and (Wednesday’s starting pitcher) Wes (Mendes) set the tone in the way they prepare for games. They’re always locked in and ready to go.”

Class 5A State Semifinal ⚾

Catcher Josh Hines and reliever Derek Westfall celebrate the game-ending strikeout sending Jesuit to Wednesday’s Class 5A state final.

Jesuit 3, Sebring 1

S 010|000|0 – |1|5|2
J 010|011|x – |3|6|0
W – Andersen (1-1); L – Vaughn; S – Westfall (7)
3B – Travers (S). Records – S (24-7); J (27-4).