GREEN COVE SPRINGS - Clay High baseball needed a spark to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the fifth inning in a rematch against district champion Ridgeview High, who beat Clay 8-1 a week ago for the …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS - Clay High baseball needed a spark to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the fifth inning in a rematch against district champion Ridgeview High, who beat Clay 8-1 a week ago for the district crown, and Aiden Hampton answered with a thunderous double off Panther starter Billy Girgis.
“I don’t know what Aiden’s (Hampton) batting average is, I think it is like .193 or something like that, but I just believed in him,” said Clay Head Coach Josh Persinger. “His swing is one of the best we have in practice. He was the Firestarter there.”
Hampton’s blast fueled a five-run fifth inning for the Blue Devils who took and maintained a 5-3 gap to the final inning to avenge the district final loss and also put Clay in the driver’s seat for a Class 5A Final Four berth.
With the win, Clay will host Columbia on Tues., May 16 in the region championship with the Class 5A Final Four set for Mon., May 22 (State Semi) and Wed., May 24 (State Final) in Fort Myers.
The Panthers looked to double down on their previous win over the Blue Devils with a great start, a 1-0 lead in the volatile Blue Devil fancave, thanks to Xavier Harris leading off the game with a line drive single to center field, moving to second with a sacrifice fly by Douglas Langley, and driven home by Girgis.
With Clay being unproductive in the batter’s box, Ridgeview went back to work in the top of the third inning when Billy Girgis was safely on after an infield grounder was bobbled. Alfredo Jimenez smacked an RBI double into right field to score Girgis, 2-0. Jimenez would add the third Panther score when Clayton Gulbrand hit a grounder to second base which was another handful for the Clay defense, 3-0.
After both teams left a runner here and there on the bases with nothing to show, the Blue Devils had an inning of everything go their way when Hampton was safely on second base as the lead off hitter in the bottom of the fifth. Like a huge wave going through the Clay dugout, the players knew the time was now or maybe never. With the capacity crowd going crazy, Merrick Rapoza walked, putting two runners on base. Sean Alvers next put down a textbook bunt down the third base line which the Panther’s had no time to make a play on any player, loading the bases and no outs.
Cole Carnell delivered an RBI singled to left field to finally break through, 3-1, followed by Chase Haggard sacrificing to score Rapoza and Alvers to tie the game, 3-3. Now with two outs, it looked like the Panthers could lick their wounds and get back in the driverâ€™s seat. That was until Josh Rouw said not so fast with an RBI grounder to left field to score Carnell, 4-3. Pantherâ€™s Keegan Roach relieved Girgis on the pitcherâ€™s mound to try and slow the roll of the Blue Devils.
â€œI probably should have made a different decision there instead of letting Billy (Girgis) continue that inning,â€ said Panther Head Coach Saul Jimenez. â€œWe felt confident, but thatâ€™s baseball. It bit us badly and clay took advantage of it. Thatâ€™s baseball.â€
Clayâ€™s Easton McMahan didnâ€™t get the memo and laid down a hard RBI grounder to left field as well, which scored Rouw, 5-3. The Panthers closed the inning and now needed to scratch and claw their way out.
â€œIâ€™m a big energy guy,â€ said Persinger. â€œIâ€™ve been at this a long time. There are sparks. Who we face and who we are doesnâ€™t really matter if we buy in.â€
The Blue Devils went all in and put Elijah Roberts on the mound to close things out. The strategy worked as Roberts went two innings with no hits, one walk and three strikeouts to earn the save behind Easton McMahan who went five innings, five hits, three runs, two walks and one strikeout.
For the Panthers, it was an impressive second year under Manager Saul Jimenez. Jimenez took the team from a 6-18 season, to 8-15 in 2022, to a 20 win, District Championship 2023 season. While he loses 10 seniors after graduation, six starters, the future looks bright for Panthers Baseball as he now has a great JV squad building players, and he has weapons returning to the lineup for 2024 which holds much promise for the team.
â€œIâ€™m proud of my guys,â€ said Jimenez. â€œThey fought all the way down to the end. They have nothing to hang their heads for. This is the first time these kids have been in this situation in a long time. We got the second District Championship in school history so their legacy is written forever at Ridgeview, and the first 20 win season in Ridgeview history. They have to be proud of themselves. We wonâ€™t look back on what we could have done, weâ€™ll just build from that and look for a good run next year like we had this year.â€
Persinger was humbled by Jimenez’ affect on the season.
“They got the monkey off their back. We are two swings away from having a completely different conversation,” said Persinger. “I give Saul all the credit. He really turned that program around.â€
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