Final four “business trip” as Sickles seeks first title

Gryphons senior Hayden Yost has hit .323 in his four-year varsity career, but is hoping to add a state title to his impressive resume before graduation.

By Jarrett Guthrie, Editor

TAMPA – Sickles senior Hayden Yost blasted a first-inning two-run homer securing the Gryphons region final win against Gaither and booking a return trip to the state semifinal in Fort Myers. Last season’s run was magical for the Gryphons prior to falling in the Class 6A semifinal game against eventual champions Doral Academy, and it featured a county-leading 45 runs from Yost.

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But the trip to the final four was bittersweet for the University of Florida-signed Yost, who spent the entirety of the Gryphons 6-5, extra-inning loss, and the two previous region wins watching from the dugout after a region quarterfinal collision with teammate Luke Fikar broke his arm and ended his year.

“To not have (Hayden) last year really hurt us,” Gryphons head coach Eric Luksis said. “You put him in that lineup last year and I don’t know the game ends the way it did. I’m so happy he gets to participate in it this time.”

Sickles senior Hayden Yost.

Last week, after driving in Connor Vance and stepping on the plate following his homer, en route to a 7-1 win against the Cowboys, Yost was confident in the dugout.

“You have no idea,” Fikar said about Yost’s desire to return to the state semifinals. “He hit that homer against Gaither, came back in the dugout and said, ‘let’s go, we are winning this game and I’m playing in states this year.’ He’s so hyped up and ready to go.”

Sickles assistant coach Bob Shaw greats senior Hayden Yost at first base after a hit in the season opener win against Strawberry Crest.

With 232 high school at-bats and 94 runs scored, there is only one thing that has been on the mind of the speedy outfielder – winning a state title.

“The whole goal all year was to get back to this spot,” Yost said. “It was really frustrating sitting in that dugout last year, unable to compete with my teammates. I made it my goal to help us get back here and finish it this time. Our motto all year – complete the mission.”

Luksis said nothing was taken for granted this year, and he is thrilled for Yost to get a chance at finishing the mission.

“He’s been a four-year starter for us,” Luksis said. “The kid has done literally everything right since stepping on the field four years ago, and for about a year he’s said, ‘coach, we’re going back, we’re going back,’ and he has kept that mindset. To be here and for him to have the season he’s had, it’s just incredible.

“After that region title game, he was the first player I went up to and he told me, ‘Coach, we aren’t done yet.’”

Admittedly, last season’s run to the final four was met with a little wide-eyed wonder for the young squad. A year later, the No. 1 team in Class 6A is full of seniors that have no intention to walk away “just happy to be here” this week.

“I think last year we got here and it was just a ‘let’s see what happens,’ mindset,” Yost said. “This year, we are more prepared. This is a business trip, we’re here to execute and play the brand of baseball that has worked so far.”

“Last year we made it here to states and we were satisfied,” Fikar said. “Now we have to complete the mission. Last year wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but we are going to make sure we play how we’ve played all year and hopefully that is enough.”

Fikar settles under a pop up at shortstop in a Saladino Tournament game against Jefferson.

Sickles (28-2) will take to the field at Fort Myers’ Hammond Stadium at 1 p.m. on Tuesday taking on Winter Springs (19-9-1) for the semifinal game, with a spot in Wednesday’s championship final on the line.

All credit due to the Gryphons superstar, Fikar and Yost’s co-captain, and Tuesday’s semifinal starting pitcher Caden McDonald (11-1, 0.96 ERA, 91 strikeouts), who has 32 RBI and a county-best 11 homers thrown in as well. But when the Gryphons need a spark, time and again it’s been the gargantuan play of the 5-foot-7, 165-pounder that has paid off. A steady .313 hitter with 13 runs and 12 RBI, Fikar has also made 16 appearances on the mound, while posting a 0.42 ERA and a pair of saves.

“He’s just that blue collar guy,” Luksis said. “Whatever we need in the big moment, Luke’s the guy who finds it, whether it be on the mound or defensively.”

Asked what part of the game he enjoys most, Sickles starting shortstop and reliever said he can’t help but lean toward having the ball in his hand late in the game.

“The total experience is amazing,” Fikar said, “but I really do love coming in for those pressure-filled situations at the end of the game. They aren’t used to seeing the sidearm and I love to finish those games and see my teammates hyped up after.”

A deceptive sidearm angle from the 5-foot-7 senior hurler has given opponents fits as Fikar has allowed just one run in each of the last two years. 

Though not the biggest player on the field, Fikar fully embraces being slept on by opposing teams.

“I love proving people wrong,” Fikar said. “They look at me, my size, they see my fastball, which isn’t the fastest in the world, and they aren’t intimidated. They think, ‘we got this guy,’ but the outcome most of the time, well it’s been pretty good.”

As he did last season, Fikar’s “pretty good” is a single earned run allowed in his 16 2/3 innings of work.

This year the goal remains the same, and Fikar will undoubtedly have his chance to help his team.

“It seems when times get tougher, he gets better,” Luksis said. “That’s gonna be big for us here in our biggest games.”

No games this season have been tougher than the two ahead for the Gryphons. But there’s business left to do. A mission to finish.