State-seasoned Jesuit too much for Wesley Chapel in semi

Jesuit sophomore Kaden Waechter sends a two-run triple out to deep right field to put the Tigers ahead in the second inning of Friday’s FHSAA Class 5A state semifinal game against Wesley Chapel.

By Jarrett Guthrie, Editor

FORT MYERS – A first-ever visit to the FHSAA state baseball final four can be hard on a team. The expectations, the stage, the importance – all amplified by a professional ball park.

It can be overwhelming.

Add in a perennial powerhouse as your semifinal opponent, and it can be unforgiving.

For its part Wesley Chapel battled its way to a district title, then the program’s first region title and earned its spot. The Wildcats even jumped out to an early lead on Friday from Hammond Stadium – Spring Training home to the Minnesota Twins, with a run in the first inning.

Second year Wesley Chapel head coach Tripp Merrell talks to his Wildcats players prior to the game.

But in search of its seventh state title and behind a total-team offensive effort, Jesuit was not to be denied a spot in its third-straight state final, as the Tigers ended Wesley Chapel’s run in a five-inning, 11-1 game.

“This was a young team to start the year … when you look at our lineup today there were eight sophomores and freshmen in it,” WCHS head coach Tripp Merrell said. “We had two seniors and a slew of senior pitching, but this is a good program, and if they keep working their butts off they’ll get where they need to be.”

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Wesley Chapels Dylan Pabon slides safely into third base in the first inning. Pabon led off the game with a single, and scored the Wildcats lone run. 

The youngsters of Wesley Chapel (20-11) did not appear hesitant at the game’s start, as sophomore leadoff Dylan Pabon greeted Tigers senior Aden Knowles with a single lined into the outfield and just barely out-of-reach of centerfielder DJ Pirela. Pabon was on the move for freshman JoJo Guevara’s single to center, and with a first-and-third situation, sophomore Mills Carrillo pulled in his hands and drove a groundball slowly toward second base for an RBI.

Freshman JoJo Guevara lines a single into centerfield in the first inning.

“I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but (Wesley Chapel) didn’t have anything to lose,” Jesuit skipper Miguel Menendez said. “We figured they were going to give us everything they’ve got early, try to be aggressive and push the issue, and try and get that lead and see what happens.”

Jesuit senior Aden Knowles allowed a run on two hits in the first inning, then held the Wildcats to just one more hit – working all five innings of Friday’s mercy-rule shortened state semifinal. Knowles, our 813Preps upper classification Pitcher of the Year in 2023, finishes his senior season 7-0.

From there, however, Knowles took control.

The NC State-signed righty gave up just one more single (Jordi Dominguez’s leadoff ground ball in the fifth) and a pair of walks, as Knowles punched the clock for five innings, striking out six for his seventh win of the season.

“(My) fastball and slider early were tough, but then I found it,” Knowles said. “I just battled and competed, it’s not like I can just walk off the field. I’m there, I’m competing, but obviously it got a little easier once we got some runs.”

His coach couldn’t help but chuckle at his senior pitcher’s ‘what was I gonna do?’ assessment, but pointed to his ability to quickly work out of the early jam.

“Aden did a good job settling in and limiting the damage to one run,” Menendez said. “We felt pretty confident that one run wasn’t going to beat us today, but it took us a little while to get going. Once we answered and took the lead, Aden shifted into another gear.”

Tigers junior catcher Vincent DeCarlo.

Tigers junior catcher Vincent DeCarlo said he felt Knowles was in his head a bit to start, but he was never concerned about someone he’s played baseball with since they were six years old.

“There is never really a problem with Aden,” DeCarlo said of his battery-mate. “His fastball was missing up, (he was) trying to aim it a little too much, maybe thinking a little too much. But once he found his groove it was automatic, like it usually is when he’s throwing.”

Vincent DeCarlo jumps up after driving in a run in the fourth inning.

One of the Tigers’ captains, DeCarlo caught one runner stealing in the win, but his biggest impact in the game may have been his understanding of how to communicate with his teammates, something he said helped him when trying to bring the team together after falling behind.

“This is our third year in a row being here, my third year being here,” he said. “I’ve been playing with most of these guys since I was 12, with Aden since I was six, so I feel like I know what each guy needs and how to calm things down.”

Wesley Chapel sophomore Eli Chana.

Wildcats sophomore Eli Chana worked from the mound with the early lead in hand, and was met immediately by a single from Pirela up-the-middle. After a flyout to the next batter, Chana faced some adversity when Noah Sheffield singled to put two aboard. But he showcased a healthy dose of poise winning a 12-pitch at-bat against DeCarlo, who fouled off eight two-strike pitches in a row, but watched strike three go by. Chana added one more strikeout to end the first with no damage allowed.

The game’s leadoff single from Wesley Chapel’s Dylan Pabon lands just out of reach of a diving Jesuit centerfielder DJ Pirela.

Will Burke’s picture-perfect sac bunt set up Jesuit’s two-run second inning by moving two runners into scoring position.

From there though, Jesuit (25-6) broke loose. The home-second saw a leadoff Jacob Lozano single, a walk, and a perfect sac bunt from Will Burke to put two in scoring position – and this time it was a Tigers sophomore – Kaden Waechter – who earned his state-series stripes. Waechter sent an opposite-field fly ball tailing toward the rightfield line, where Sean Roche gave it a good chase and reached for the ball over his shoulder, but saw it tip off the end of his glove after a 25-yard dash.

Wildcats rightfielder Sean Roche covered a lot of ground, but couldn’t quite pull in Kaden Waechter’s two-run triple.

The two-run triple was all the Tigers would need to get going, but the offense wasn’t content to let any pressure build on Knowles.

Jesuit senior Jack Clark drives an RBI triple into the deepest part of Hammond Stadium in the third inning.

The next inning, senior Jack Clarke gave his pitcher some breathing room with an RBI triple of his own.

“It was huge (to add the third run), because I knew when we got the lead to a few runs Aden could settle in and just pitch with less pressure,” Clark said. “He could just throw the ball and know he had his defense behind him to protect the lead.”

Clark is fired up as he starts to get up after sliding into third.

That lead would need even less protection as the Tigers shored up the victory with a seven-run third, highlighted by a two-run single by DeCarlo, a Zane Pestalozzi two-run double, and an RBI double from Dean Spoto.

Zane Pestalozzi breaks out of the box for a two-run double.

Senior Dean Spoto drives a ground ball through the left side for an RBI hit.

“Obviously, I loved it,” Knowles said with a big grin. “I love runs, I love pitching with a big lead. It’s kind of tough when you come back out after sitting for a while, but I’d rather be up than fresh for an inning.”

Jesuit wrapped up the game a few innings early, as Jack Earnest lined a double to center trading places with Sheffield (who scored three times in the win) to invoke the mercy-rule in the fifth.

Tigers senior Jack Earnest is caught a bit surprised after his RBI double, not knowing he’d ended the game via mercy-rule.

“Jack Earnest and Dean Spoto – for me those are two bright spots – two very talented guys,” Menendez said. “Dean Spoto … was in the lineup early in the year for us, and we went to a sophomore Kaden Waechter, but Dean’s bought into what his role is … for him to get an at-bat today was important and he came through with a big hit.

“And Jack Earnest, same thing, a guy who is really talented, it’s just the number of guys in front of him, it’s hard to get (him at-bats). He’s probably the 10th guy in a nine-man lineup, but every time we put him into a game in a big spot he gets a big base hit.”

Tigers senior Noah Sheffield takes a quick peek back toward second base as he charges home to score his team’s final (and his third) run of the game.

Jesuit, winners of its sixth state title in 2022, will have revenge on its mind in Saturday’s state championship game, facing off with defending state champions Plantation American Heritage (winners, 3-2 against Tallahassee Lincoln on Friday), which defeated Jesuit in the 2023 final, 8-5 in eight innings.

“We’re one of the last two teams standing,” Menendez said, “and we’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

Saturday’s state championship game is scheduled for a 2 p.m. first pitch.

⚾ Class 5A State Semifinal

Jesuit 11, Wesley Chapel 1 (5)

W 100|00x|x – |1|3|4
J  021|71x|x – |11|9|0
W – Knowles (7-0); L – Chana (5-1)
2B – Pestalozzi, Earnest (J); 3B – Waechter, Clark (J). Records – W (20-11); J (25-6).