NEW PORT RICHEY - Mitchell coach Phil Bell was doing fine holding back the tears until senior Josh Le'Roy ran out to the field, stopped his coach in mid sentence and put a ball in his hand.
"Game ball," he said, leaving his coach speechless for a moment.
The Mustangs had a lot of those to give out Tuesday night, pulling out a 6-5 upset of Land O'Lakes in the Class 5A, District 5 semifinals to earn the school's first playoff berth.
"I told them they believed in themselves, and they did it," said Bell, whose team advances to Thursday's 8 p.m. championship game against top-seeded River Ridge. "Plain and simple, they played a good, freaking gutsy baseball game. I'm so proud of these kids."
Mitchell (12-12) had never beaten Land O'Lakes in its four-year history and had never made the playoffs, crossing two big things off the to-do list in one night. Six of the Mustangs' nine hits went for extra bases, including a two-run home run by Mike Reid in the third and a solo shot by Matt Wilson, who also brought in the deciding run with a double in the sixth.
Mustangs starter Jake Knight (6-2) held the Knights to two hits in three-plus innings for the win, and Derek Shaw closed out the game in dramatic fashion, getting all seven of his outs by strikeout, four with the tying run on base.
"It felt good. It felt more than good," said Shaw, who struck out the Gators' Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters to close out the game. "Nothing could be better than this, and we're going to win on Thursday."
The loss spoils a solid season for Land O'Lakes (16-9), which had swept both regular-season meetings with Mitchell. The Gators battled back from a 6-2 deficit in the sixth, loading the bases and getting a two-out line drive from Ryan Rigau that went off Reid's glove to score three.
But again, with the tying run at third base, leadoff batter Danny Sutton struck out, one of 11 strikeouts by Gators batters. Sophomore Caz Piurowski, the team's leading hitter, grounded into a double play and struck out three times, twice to end innings.
"Golf season," coach Calvin Baisley said. "We had lots of opportunities, had our best players up. We came back, battled to the end, but we couldn't get it done, and that's how it goes."
The Mustangs, who have won seven of nine since a midseason swoon dropped them to 5-10, made good on a preseason goal to make the playoffs. Thursday, they'll get a third shot at River Ridge, but just getting there was worth celebrating Tuesday.
"Our goals at the beginning of the season were to make the playoffs and win a district championship," he said, just as Le'Roy presented him with the memento. "They've been through a lot this year, and this was a very fitting game for them. They had control of the game, it got tight and they made it happen. They've showed so much courage throughout this year."
4A-10: Wildcats storm back
HUDSON - Wesley Chapel entered Tuesday's first round of the Class 4A, District 10 tournament in search of its first win in a district series.
Now, coach Steve Mumaw said, "We're in uncharted territory."
The Wildcats rallied from a six-run deficit for a 7-6 win over Gulf in eight innings, improving to 1-4 in district tourneys.
In the nightcap, Zephyrhills' Joe Duffau pitched a three-hitter and struck out 15 in a 4-1 defeat of Hudson.
In today's semifinals, Zephyrhills plays Ridgewood at 4, followed by the Wesley Chapel-Tarpon Springs game at 7.
Wesley Chapel (9-15) defeated Gulf twice this season by the 10-run rule, and Mumaw warned his players about overconfidence.
"It's tough to beat a team three times," Mumaw said. "I expected a real close ballgame, and I told the kids that."
Gulf took a 4-0 lead in the first thanks, in large part, to Blaise Simon's three-run home run. And when the Bucs (5-18) added two runs for a 6-0 lead through three innings, it looked like anything but a close ballgame.
But the Wildcats clawed back with five runs over the next two innings, highlighted by Kevin Holmes' two-run homer in a three-run fifth.
The teams combined for 21 hits, but the outcome hinged on an error. Kris Quinones, who led off the eighth with a single, scored the winner on a grounder by Danny Ciaccio that third baseman Brandon Decker couldn't handle.
"They battled back and they did a great job," Mumaw said of his players.
Kyle Velez had a two-run single and Brett Ross a run-scoring single as Zephyrhills (12-13) scored three in the fifth to snap a tie at 1.
Duffau (8-2), the county's strikeout leader with 131, also walked two and hit a batter. He doubled twice and scored in the fifth.
Erik Burgan had two of Hudson's three hits. He doubled in the third and scored the Cobras' run when Sam Donataccio reached on Velez's infield error.