SEBRING — Like a batter seeking a perfect day at the plate, Avon Park is hoping to go 3 for 3 on the goals it set before the season started.
“At the beginning of the year, we said we wanted to be the district’s No. 1 seed heading into the tournament,” Red Devils coach Whit Cornell said. “We did that. Then our next goal was to be district champions, and we did that, too. Now we want to win a playoff game, and if we beat Tampa Catholic, I really think it will catapult this program, not just to where we want to be, but back to where the students and fans expect it to be.”
The Devils (20-4) play the Crusaders (16-9) tonight at Charles R. Head Field in the Class 4A regional quarterfinals. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.
It’s a match up of storied baseball programs. Tampa Catholic and Avon Park have 17 state titles between them, and the Devils are tied with Tallahassee Leon for most appearances in the state tournament with 42.
There’s recent playoff history between the Crusaders and Devils, too.
“Tampa Catholic beat us at Head Field in 2012,” Cornell said. “They knocked us out of the state tournament. But we’ve had a good week of practice and we’re excited to get out there and play.”
Hitting hasn’t been a problem for Avon Park. The Devils enter tonight’s game averaging close to eight runs per contest. Most of the games have been lopsided, with Avon Park’s superb pitching shutting down opposing hitters. Whether Kenny McGrath or Daniel Simons gets the start against the Crusaders — Cornell said he hasn’t made a decision yet — both hurlers have been spectacular. McGrath compiled a 5-2 record in 13 appearances, striking out 51 batters with a 2.45 ERA. Simons managed a 10-0 record in 13 appearances, fanning 62 with a slightly higher ERA of 2.48.
Both pitchers pound the strike zone, which spells trouble for Tampa Catholic.
The Crusaders are averaging an anemic four runs per game, and they’ve struggled on the road. Tampa Catholic is a dismal 3-12 away from home, which bodes well for the Devils, who went 10-2 at Head Field.
But Cornell knows that history doesn’t mean much when it comes time to play ball.
“We’ve got to go out there and put quality at-bats together,” Cornell said. “All season we’ve taken it one game at a time. The hardest part is remembering to just go out and play. Against Tampa Catholic, our mindset hasn’t changed. We need to make the routine plays, throw strikes to get ahead in the count, and pretty much play our style of baseball.”
It also plays into the Devils’ favor that both teams had common opponents during the regular season. The Crusaders lost 6-0 to Class 5A Sebring at Firemen’s Field early in the season, and edged Class 4A McKeel Academy (Lakeland) by three runs. The Devils defeated both the Blue Streaks and Wildcats at different points this year.
“It should be a competitive game,” Cornell said. “We’ve worked hard to be here and we’ve certainly got the resume of a state playoff team. We’re really looking forward to a tight contest.”