Windermere Little League Finishes Second in State Championship
The Windermere American Little League team’s quest to reach the World Series ended tonight at Bill Keller Park in Debary. Facing a powerful Plant City team that outscored its opponents 55-12 over the previous four games, Windermere led after four innings but couldn’t hold on, losing 5-3.
Windermere made it to the championship game in spectacular fashion. Doug Nikhazy hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 8th (Regulation games are six innings) to beat South Ft. Meyers Sunday morning. Windermere used two of its best pitchers, Tony Sartini and Nikhazy, to seal the win against Ft. Meyers, and they were unable to pitch tonight.
The Windermere players grew up playing baseball. Some of the players knew each other since nursery school. Fans for both teams filled the bleachers for tonight’s “win or go home” contest. Courtney LaRue, older sister of Windermere’s Adam, wrote his number 12 on her cheek. Other fans had their player’s number on their faces or other places on their bodies. Some of the older siblings painted their chests gold, the team color. Courtney said, “Little League has been my life all summer. Practice every day.”
Neither Plant City nor Windermere had ever had a team play in the State Championship game before. Both teams wanted to win. Windermere started Chris Mercedes, who kept the Plant City hitters off balance with an assortment of change-ups, sliders and an occasional fastball. He held Plant City scoreless in the top of the first.
In the bottom of the first, Plant City pitcher Ben Hidalgo struck out the first two Windermere batters swinging at his hard fastball and soft change. The next batter, Nikhazy, redirected the first change he saw from the little lefty over the left field fence for a 1-0 Windermere lead.
After a scoreless second, Plant City threatened in the top of the third. Mercedes walked Hidalgo who went to second on a bloop single to left by Christian Laird. Tate Whatley lined out to center and the runners had to hold. One out. Mercedes threw three straight balls to the next batter, Will Johnson, who swung at the fourth pitch and hit a sharp grounder toward second. Sartini, the shortstop, scooped the ball up, stepped on second, and threw to first to complete the double play, ending the inning.
Hidalgo started the bottom of the third by striking out Windermere first baseman John Hymes and shortstop Sartini. Stocky catcher Tanner Wood worked the count to 3-2, then crushed a fly ball high over the fence down the third base line which the third base umpire ruled foul. It appeared that the home plate umpire signaled home run but changed after seeing his partner’s call. The umpires conferred twice to discuss matters further and upheld the ruling. Hidalgo didn’t want to give Wood anything to hit after that and walked him on the next pitch.
Nikhazy then singled sharply past second base and Mercedes walked, loading the bases with two outs. Plant City replaced Hidalgo on the mound with Laird, sending Hidalgo to center field. Laird struck out Walczak, swinging, but the ball bounced away from the catcher. With two outs, Walczak ran to first and the runners moved up, giving Windermere a 2-0 lead. Laird struck out Ben Thompson to end the threat.
Laird is a short right hander with a three quarters motion. His dipping fast balls and off speed pitches had the Windermere batters swinging and missing at several balls in the dirt. He struck out the side in the fourth and fifth innings.
Mercedes held Plant City scoreless in their half of the fourth, helped by Sartini’s leaping grab of a hard line drive. In the top of the fifth Mercedes was close to his limit of 85 pitches and appeared to lose some control. He walked the first batter, who went to second and third on wild pitches. After CJ Gaynor lined out, Mercedes walked Hidalgo, who ran all the way to second when Windermere thought time was called to change pitchers.
Kyle Gilgallon went to the mound with no outs and runners on second and third. Laird lined to center for the second out, but then Whatley hit a hard ground ball past the second baseman. Two runs scored as the ball rolled all the way to the fence. A single by Johnson brought in another run, and Plant City had a 3-2 lead.
George Paulson pitched the sixth for Windermere, and gave up a two run homer to Matt Byars for a 5-2 lead. Windermere did not give up. Manager Rupert Wood said, “I knew we’d respond .. and we did.”
Laird got to an 0-2 count on Mercedes, before hitting him with a pitch. Walczak then bounced a ball up the middle for a single to put runners on first and second, no one out. A home run would tie the game. Thompson struck out swinging. The ball bounced past the catcher so Walczak took second. Gilgallon hit a hard grounder up the middle that the shortstop bobbled, then picked up and just nipped Gilgallen by a step for the second out. Mercedes scored Windermere’s third run on the play. Then Paulsen struck out to end the game. As skyrockets flew up to mark the crowning of a new state champion, Windermere and Plant City fans gave both teams a standing ovation.
After the award presentation fans witnessed an extraordinary display of sportsmanship. Plant City, called Windermere over into a tight circle where they shared a prayer. Windermere then led a cheer for Plant City, Florida’s representatives in the Southeast Regional next weekend in Georgia. Coach Steve Wolczak put it, “We teach them that it’s more than baseball. It’s a lesson for life.”
Windermere fans were sad to lose, but the overwhelming emotion was a feeling of pride in their team and gratitude for the experience they shared. Manager Wood told his team, “I will remember what we did this summer for the rest of my life. I am so proud of all of you guys. We started with 288 teams playing and you were one of the last two.”