Gaither bests Armwood; takes aim at Sickles next

Gaither senior Zach Callahan earned his seventh win of the season, delivering four inning, allowing one run on three hits, with one strikeouts.

By Mike Camunas, Creative Director

NORTHDALE — It’s the matchup just about a year in the making.

All because both Gaither and Sickles resoundingly took care of business in the FHSAA Class 6A-Region 3 quarterfinals, the nearby rivals will meet, once again, and, once again, with deeper postseason aspirations on the line.

On Tuesday night at Frank Permuy Park, the No. 3-seeded Cowboys (19-6) downed Armwood 9-1, while No. 2-seeded Sickles dispatched Largo 16-6, setting up a region semifinal that’s a rematch of last season’s region final — a game that propelled the Gryphons to its second-straight state tournament final four in Fort Myers … and ended with the Class 6A state championship.

Angel Hernandez was 2-for-2 with a double, triple and three runs scored in the win.

Click here for our full photo gallery from this game.

But the Cowboys are ready.

In fact, they’ve been ready for two years, as Sickles has knocked them out of the postseason the past two seasons — first in the district tournament in 2022 — an 8-3 loss — and, of course, in 2023 in the region final — a 7-1 loss.

“(The anticipated rematch is), obviously, there,” said senior outfielder Josh Choe, who drove in two RBI and scored a run on Tuesday evening, “and we know those guys, but there is really no one I’d rather beat (than Sickles), to be honest.

“They had their chance last year — this is our chance this year.”

Armwood senior Tyler Corns delivers a pitch.

Certainly, the Gryphons (21-7) will be a steep challenge, after putting up 16 runs behind multi-RBI performances from Cameron Guise and Braden Ross (read about it here), but for the Cowboys, their bats have been red hot, as well.

Gaither is riding a five-game winning streak in which it has outscored opponents 45-17, including 20 runs in the past two games.

“Yeah, we felt it at the plate (Tuesday night),” Choe added, “so we can’t complain, at all, about 20 runs in two games.

“I think everyone just knows what their role is and isn’t trying to do too much.”

Cowboys senior leftfielder Josh Choe runs down a catch. 

Cowboys coach Nelson North feels as though his lineup has been hitting well all season — that is making contact — but now the runs are coming thanks to timely hitting.

“The runs are great,” North said, “and that’s what we’ve been waiting for, but like I said, the at bats have been good all year. They haven’t had the timely hits or hit balls at (defenders), so good at bats are good at bats, and we’ve had those this year.

“What I like is to make sure they are focused at every at bat and they don’t give away an at bat — if they don’t do that, they’ll always be a good-hitting team.”

Nearly every batter in the lineup contributed on Tuesday, with seven of the nine notching hits, while Choe, David Pina and S.J. Branham all drove in two runs apiece, Nico Lopez and Jackson Mirza each drove in a run, with the latter having a two-hit night, and Angel Hernandez was 2-for-2 with a double, triple, walk and scored three times.

Gaither sophomore SJ Branham was 3-for-4 in Tuesday’s win, with a double, two RBI and a run scored.

Branham went 3-for-4 with a double, while the team also stole six bases — two each by Mirza and Choe.

The Hawks (15-7), however, mustered just four hits, and scored their only run in the top of the third inning following back-to-back singles from Javier Suniaga and Princeton Clark, a sac bunt by Theodric Hicks — who had a stellar diving catch in the outfield later in the game — and then a wild pitch plated the run.

Armwood reliever Alonzo Godwin.

That wild pitch came from senior starter Zach Callahan, who pitched four innings, allowed three hits and picked up a strikeout before giving way to Noah Lockler, who would strikeout four over two innings and allow one hit.

“Callahan did exactly what we needed him to do,” North said. “He was great.”

Callahan, now 7-0 on the season, said he really settled in after the second inning, when his teammates spotted him seven runs.

“I came out with a lot of confidence by just looking for strikes out there,” he said, “but, of course, it helps when (you get seven runs of support in the second inning) — helps a lot.”

Gaither first baseman Nico Lopez waits on a throw-over.

Senior southpaw Mikey Fernandez would close out the game in the seventh by striking out the side, but only threw 14 pitches, which sets him up perfectly to get the call Friday night.

And he should be facing Sickles ace Cameron Guise, who also pitched Tuesday, though only threw 29 pitches to strike out four over two innings, earning the win as the Gryphons offense scored nine in the first.

First-year Hawks head coach Shawn Queen led his alma mater to a 15-7 season and its first region appearance since 2016.

Plus, it sets up one of the premiere rematches of 2024, even if it isn’t the first time Sickles and Gaither have faced off this season. However, it’s been all Gryphons, so far, as in back-to-back games, Sickles has outscored the Cowboys 21-1, which includes an 18-2 drubbing on the first day of the Saladino Tournament.

Junior David Pina was 1-for-4 with two RBI in the win.

Yet, North and the rest of the Gaither team fully expected to see Sickles again at some point in the postseason.

“I mean, yeah, we were — they’re a good team,” North said. “I figured this whole (Region 3) bracket was us, (No. 1 seed) East Lake and Sickles, so we were expecting them. … (And) I just told them (after the game) they’re better than Sickles when they play their game, which they have been (doing) so far.”

“Yeah, (North) is right,” Callahan added, “because if we play our game, we’ll come out ahead. … (It’s) awesome for us – the bats coming around to produce runs, so there’s not much more you can ask for after the way we’ve been swinging it all year.”

Armwood sophomore Zalen Hicks pitched two innings of relief, allowing on run and striking out one.

Sophomore Noah Lockler struck out four in his two scoreless innings of relief.

⚾ Class 6A-Region 3

Gaither 9, Armwood 1

A 001|000|0 – |1|4|0
G 071|010|x – |9|10|0
W – Callahan (7-0); L – Corns (5-3)
2B – Hernandez, Branham (G); 3B – Hernandez (G). Records – A (15-7); G (19-6).