A win and they’re in: Sharks could reach Final Four for the first time in 15 seasons Tuesday night at Alachua-Santa Fe (weather permitting)

NCT senior Jonathan Gates (8-1) seeks his sixth straight win in the Class 5A, Region II Finals beginning at 7 p.m. at Alachua-Santa Fe (weather permitting). Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO


Raiders (16-13) are no

slouches in their 23rd

regional tournament



For only the 14th time over the last 88 years, a Hernando County prep baseball team will attempt to reach the coveted FHSAA Final Four.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday night, Hernando County champion and three-time Class 5A, District 7 champion Nature Coast Technical (25-4) will confront 5A-5 champ Alachua-Santa Fe (16-13).

The Sharks are expected to trek via charter bus approximately 116 miles – traveling just over two hours – to the Raiders’ all-grass field attempting to create history in the Class 5A, Region II Finals.

Jacksonville-Bolles Bulldogs

In its 15th season, NCT is attempting to become the county’s third program to reach states.

Tallahassee-Rickards Raiders

With a win, the Sharks will confront the survivor of the Region I finale between Jacksonville Bolles (22-5) at Tallahassee-Richards (19-10) on Thursday, May 31, in the FHSAA state semifinals in Fort Myers.

History lesson

The Hernando High Leopards hold the county mark for reaching states the most times(4) thanks to sectional, now called, regional finals victories.

HHS is a combined 3-9 in those tilts.

The Leopards last regional final triumph arrived in 2011 besting visiting Citra-North Marion, under Tim Sims, 11-1.

Tim Sims                            Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

F.W. Springstead is the only other diamond program to ever reach a regional final in 2013, falling to host Orlando-Edgewater, 6-5.

The Sharks, who are riding a five-game winning skein – all post-season wins at home – have set the school record for wins in a single season (25) and most wins at home (15).

Sharks vs. Raiders

While the Sharks are meandering through uncharted waters, make no mistake the Raiders are no slouches.

In the Raiders’ 23rd regional tournament, Santa Fe is a combined 23-21 in regional/state action compared to NCT’s 6-5 slate.

While the Sharks have never reached states, Santa Fe is seeking its sixth Final Four.

In its last Final Four appearance – behind its fifth regional title – arrived 15 years ago in 2003, under Todd Gray.

In the five previous state visits, the Raiders were state runners-up in 1972 and followed up capturing the 2A state crown in 1975 under Doug Valenti.

The Raiders’ 18-member roster features only three seniors compared to NCT’s eight including six expected starters in Jonathan “J.P.” Gates, Brandon Frangione, Brennan Cross, Brandon Riera, Zach Funkhouser and Reilley McCarthy.

As far as strength of schedule, the Raiders, who began the season at 1-7, have a huge edge over the Sharks.

Santa Fe’s opponents have won a combined 54 percent of its games. That dwarfs NCT’s combined 49.2 percent

The Raiders, who have won four post-season games in a row, have survived a tremendous gauntlet to reach the regional finals.

To date, Santa Fe played 17 teams with .500 or better records and arrive 8-9 overall. Against under.500 squads, the Raiders are 8-4.

Just as impressive are the amount of regional playoff teams the Raiders have faced.

NCT will be its ninth playoff team.

Not counting the Sharks, the Raiders have taken on four district champions in Columbia, New Smyrna Beach, Trenton and Tavares along with four district runners-up: Gainesville, Buchholz, Newberry and Mount Dora.

By comparison, the Sharks have faced five regional opponents, including district champions Land O’ Lakes and Bishop Moore and district runners-ups Taylor, Springstead and Hernando.

At the plate, SFHS arrives hitting a collective .288, averaging almost eight hits and just over six runs per game.

By contrast, NCT arrives hitting .334, averaging almost nine hits and scoring nearly nine runs per game.

Santa Fe sophomore middle infielder David Mitchum enters hitting .361 and paces the squad in hits (35), runs scored (32) and has collected 12 extra-base hits, including nine doubles.

Freshman John Rechsteiner leads the team in hitting at .375, featuring 33 hits.

Junior Ethan Thompson, who plays first base or third base, arrives hitting .333 and has the most pop.

Thompson has collected 33 hits and driven in team-best 25 runs batted in, highlighted by a team-leading 10 doubles and four homers.

NCT will counter with its regular lineup featuring five seniors at the top of the lineup.

Zach Funkhouser

Right fielder Funkhouser leads off for the Brooksville crew, hitting .462 while leading the county in runs scored (47).

In the No. 2 slot, look for the 6-foot-1 Gates.

Gates holds almost every offensive mark for the Sharks led by a career .420 batting average, 136 hits in 95 tilts, 151 runs batted in, including 25 homeruns.

Riera, the catcher, enters hitting .326 with 26 RBI.

Brandon Riera

First sacker Frangione is the cleanup batter hitting .395 with 30 RBI.

Third sacker Cross enters hitting .341 with 20 runs knocked in.

Being such a young team, the Raiders have hurt themselves committing 76 errors. Two of their best players, Mitchum and Thompson, have combined for 24 errors.

By contrast, NCT arrives with 37 errors. Sophomore shortstop Chase Davis accounts for nearly a third of the miscues with 13.

On the bump, the Raiders are expected to utilize a lefty-right combination.

Senior southpaw Garrett McCranie is expected to start.

McCranie is expected to make his 13th appearance.

The lanky lefty leads the team in innings pitched (57.2) and wins (7). He’s fanned 37 and issued 21 walks.

Junior right-hander Dustin Beckelheimer leads the team in appearances (13) and strikeouts (48) across 46.2 innings pitched. He’s issued 13 walks.

Jonathan Gates

The Sharks will counter with its eraser: Gates.

Gates is expected to make his 45th career start. After going 2-4 as a freshman, he’s compiled a 21-2 record since with a below 1.00 ERA.

In all, the southpaw has fanned 371 batters in 223 innings pitched.

Gates (8-1 this season) has captured his last five starts since dropping the April 11 road game against Fivay, 5-2.

Most impressively, in his last three post-season starts, he hasn’t permitted an earned run.

Frank Vitale                                                        Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Fourth-year NCT skipper Frank Vitale understands the portal, the Sharks are attempting to traverse.

“We had a meeting before practice and went over some things, like playing on an all-grass surface. The ball will get slowed down,” explained Vitale. “I stressed to the guys that they couldn’t just look at their (Santa Fe’s) record. They’re not lucky. They’re a team we’ve got to take serious.

“… When you look at their schedule, it was tougher than ours. It wasn’t a cake walk for them to get this far,” added Vitale. “We use a term in football all the time that really applies. You’ve got to respect every opponent, but you can’t fear them. The key is going out and competing.”

On whether the Sharks have peaked and are satisfied with what they’ve done, “After the district semifinals, we explained to the guys that we had a chance to host possibly two rounds of regionals if we won districts against Hernando. That game was a toss-up, but we held on.

“Taylor was a young team, but they were solid before we met Bishop Moore. Even though we won that game, to me, it’s not a successful season. What have we accomplished?,” queried Vitale.

“Now, if we get past Santa Fe on the road to get to Fort Myers; that’s accomplishment. I think we’re at a disadvantage going on the road, especially playing on Santa Fe’s field,” Vitale noted. “We may have to go through what Springstead did last week.”

On the keys to reaching states, “We’ve gotta do what we do. We must score early and then they’ll have to face J.P. (Gates).”


WHAT – Class 5A, Region II Finals.

Alachua-Santa Fe Raiders

WHO – 5A-7 champion Brooksville-Nature Coast Technical Sharks (25-4) at Alachua-Sante Fe Raiders (16-13).

WHERE – Santa Fe High School, 16213 NW US Hwy 441, Alachua.

WHEN – At 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 22.

AT STAKE – The Region II champion advances to the FHSAA Class 5A State Semifinals set for Thursday, May 31, against the Region II survivor between the Jacksonville-Bolles Bulldogs (22-5) at the Tallahassee-Rickards Raiders (19-10).

By the Numbers: NCT at Alachua-Santa Fe

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO


5A-II Final





No. of regional appearances



No. of regional championships



No. of state appearances



No. of state championships



Regional/state W-L Record



All-Time Hernando County Baseball

Sectional/Regional Finals Results

(1930-2018/88 Seasons)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Hernando Leopards (3-9)

Tom Varn















W 9-4



L 2-15






W 2-1


Varn, Tom



L 0-3

Chatman, Ernie


Tampa Catholic

L 2-14 (5)

Chatman, Ernie



L 2-6

Caldwell, J.B.



L 2-9

Sims, Tim


Orlando-Bishop Moore


L 0-11

Sims, Tim




L 0-11

Sims, Tim




Citra-North Marion




W 11-1


Sims, Tim


Green Cove Springs-Clay


L 2-4

Sims, Tim




L 2-7

Sims, Tim

Springstead Eagles (0-1)














L 5-6

Diven, Jim









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