By Kyle LoJacono
Jesse Haney has been a part of the Steinbrenner baseball team since the first practice four years ago.
The senior catcher, a four-year varsity player, has been a part of the frustrating near miss to make the playoffs when the Warriors (22-2) lost to Jesuit in the district semifinals two years ago, thanks to a late error.
The disappointment was even greater last season when Steinbrenner entered the Class 7A-District 9 tournament as the No. 1 seed and took a 5-0 lead on Gaither in the semifinals before losing 10-9 in extra innings.
Aggravation finally gave way to jubilation April 25 as the top-seeded Warriors hoisted the fourth-year program’s first district title by knocking off Wiregrass Ranch (17-7) 4-0.
“We’ve come together as a team,” Haney said. “We pick each other up, and that happened multiple times tonight when one of us made a mistake. It’s really just a great group of guys.”
The Warriors had clinched their first playoff berth two nights before by defeating Freedom in the district semifinals, but four-year Steinbrenner coach John Crumbley said they wanted more.
“We have been blessed to get great kids all four years, and we were really hoping it was going to be this year,” Crumbley said. “We weren’t satisfied with 20 (wins) and with just making the playoffs.
“We tried every year to do it,” he continued. “We’ve been close, so credit to this group. Four-year guys like Chase Turner, Jesse Haney and Mikey McGuire have been on varsity since we started. Then we’ve got guys like Kevin (Merrell) and Cole (Gordon) who have done a lot in their three years.”
The Warriors picked up two runs in the first inning when Merrell and Gordon were driven in by Mijon Cummings and Turner, respectively. They added two more in the fifth when Brennan Garcia smacked a double off Wiregrass Ranch starting pitcher Ryan Girard.
“I noticed he’d thrown two curveballs when he was in the stretch last inning,” Garcia said. “I thought he might come back with it again, and he did. I just had to make contact with it.”
Senior pitcher Logan LaPace struck out three in the complete game victory.
Steinbrenner exploded offensively in defeating Freedom (4-21) 21-4 in five innings April 23 in the semifinals.
Junior left fielder Alex Hanson led off the contest with a single, which was the first of 14 hits for the Warriors. He finished 3-of-4 with five RBI and a double.
“When everyone’s hitting like that it’s hard not to have fun,” Hanson said. “I was just excited to help put us in the right direction.”
Steinbrenner plated two in the bottom of the first inning, but the Patriots responded with four in the top of the second. Haney said there was no panic in their dugout while trailing 4-2.
“Our whole focus was on that we weren’t going to lose to these guys,” said Haney, who scored three runs and had an RBI double against the Patriots. “We’ve lost this game three years running, and it’s not happening now.”
The Warriors answered by sending 14 batters to the plate and scoring 10 runs on seven hits in their half of the second. They added another eight to the scoreboard in the third.
Tournament host and defending 7A-9 champs Gaither (11-12) was defeated by Wiregrass Ranch 3-0 in the other semifinals. It is the first time the Cowboys have finished with a losing record since its inaugural season in 1985 and marks the first time they have failed to make the playoffs since 2004.
Gaither senior pitcher Hunter Henderson (4-4) tossed his eighth complete game of the season in as many starts, giving up five hits and one earned run in the losing effort.
The Cowboys managed three hits, but stranded 10 base runners and had two picked off first base in the contest.
Steinbrenner hosts Seminole May 2 at 7 p.m. in the regional quarterfinals.
—Correspondent Andy Warrener contributed to this story