By Jeff Odom
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Gaither baseball coach Frank Permuy wasn’t satisfied when his team secured a spot in the Class 7A-District 9 championship.
His fourth seeded Cowboys (16-9-1) knocked off No. 1 Steinbrenner in the semifinals, but committed six errors in the contest. Permuy told his players they better get to work to ensure it didn’t happen again.
Gaither responded with an offensive explosion en route to the program’s 11th district title with a 10-6 victory over No. 2 Freedom April 26.
“I didn’t think our pregame preparation was going the right way, so I had to shut the clubhouse down a little bit and got after some people,” Permuy said. “I think it paid off. … Maybe that was the difference, or maybe they just felt like it was time to start doing it.”
It didn’t take long for the Cowboys’ bats to heat up. Center fielder Hayden Kelley doubled over his counterpart to start the first inning. After shortstop Oscar Mercado was plunked, first baseman Jose Gonzalez blasted a three-run homer to give his team the lead.
The Patriots (15-9) answered with a run in the bottom of the first. Kyle Schindler reached on a lead-off walk and scored after three errors, the last a fielding miscue by Mercado.
Permuy told the team it couldn’t have another defensive mistake if it wanted to be a champion.
“I said ‘that’s our allotment for the game,’ ” Permuy said. “ ‘We can’t make anymore.’ ”
In the second, Gaither got extra-base hits from Eddie Pastrana, Chris Torres and Kelley.
Torres, who finished 3 for 3 with a trio of doubles, said his bat sparked at the right time.
“When you’re in a slump you just got to stick with it,” Torres said. “It’s baseball. It happens, and I just had to go out there and give it my all. I couldn’t stay in a slump forever.”
Starting pitcher Matt Frey kept Freedom’s offense on its heels, striking out 10 for the win.
The Patriots wouldn’t go down without a fight, starting a sixth-inning rally. Frey walked Devin Sheppard with the bases loaded, followed by a Cam Morgan double to clear the bags to draw Freedom within four. However, the calm demeanor from Gaither reliever Alex Milne paid off, and the team played through the jam to seal the win.
“The one thing about these guys is they haven’t given up all year,” Permuy said. “They really believe in each other. When you say team, this is probably the closest we’ve had in years.”
Gaither’s path to the district crown was anything but routine, as the host overcame two deficits to Steinbrenner to win 10-9 in the semis that needed eight innings April 24.
The Warriors (17-8) jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the second thanks to five Cowboys errors. Gaither wouldn’t panic, answering with a five-run third.
Steinbrenner’s Cole Gordon belted a three-run homer off Gaither starter Evan Gainey in the fourth to put his team on top by four.
The Cowboys chipped away and delivered the fatal blow in the eighth when Mercado delivered a two-out single, stole second and third and scored on a passed ball to complete the comeback.
Freedom defeated No. 3 Wiregrass Ranch 5-2 in the other semi to capture playoff berth for the first time in program history.
“It feels good overall,” said Freedom coach A.J. Leppla. “Obviously the outcome (in the finals) isn’t what we wanted, but to be here and everything is the first time in school history; we’ve had a lot of success this year, and I’m very proud of our young men.”