Two years ago, the Newberry baseball team got hot at the right time and never cooled off in winning their first state title in program history.
That team finished 25-1 and won their last 19 games of the season, which included a 7-5 win against Chipley in the FHSAA Class 1A state title game.
They reeled off six straight victories to start the 2021 season, hit a minor speed bump with a 5-3 loss at West Port (Ocala), and proceeded to never lose again.
Senior outfielder Justen Crews and senior pitcher Luke Ridley earned the Florida Dairy Farmers co-Player of the Year award for Class 1A.
Crews batted an impressive .584 for the 2021 season, with 52 hits (two per game), 46 runs, six homers, 29 RBI and 11 doubles. He also led the Panthers with 26 stolen bases in 26 games.
“He, in my opinion, is the most dangerous leadoff hitter I’ve seen,” Spina said two years ago of the All Area selection.
Ridley finished 7-0 on the mound with a sparkling 1.02 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 55 innings and pitched a one-hitter in the win over Hamilton County (Jasper) in the state semifinal game.
They were two key contributors to that special team which included a total of seven seniors.
They left their mark and legacy.
Now, it’s the 2023 team’s turn.
The Panthers, who won their fourth straight district title earlier this month, have a few players on this year’s team who were key contributors in the state title game against Chipley.
This time the two teams will play in a rematch in a state semifinal game at 10 a.m. on Wednesday at Lee County Sports Complex – Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.
Catcher Landon Gruenwald and first baseman Josiah Haglund were sophomores on that team and are seeking their second state title in three years.
Gruenwald (two RBI) and Haglund (1-for-3, one RBI) both contributed that day, along with then freshman Jayden Holcombe (1-for-2, one RBI).
The trio are a big reason why, along with senior Mason Smith and junior Braxton Brady, the Panthers’ are back in the state semifinals, extending a streak of final four appearances for the area.
Smith leads the team with a .338 average, Holcombe leads with a .449 on base percentage, Gruenwald is third on the team with 20 hits and leads the team with seven doubles, and Brady leads the team with 22 RBI.
Smith leads the team with 19 stolen bases, while Holcombe and Brady are second on the team with 17 apiece.
Junior Ben Beck leads the team on the mound with 16 appearances, but his ERA (2.68) is actually higher than the team average of 2.37.
Pitching and defense could be the difference on Wednesday.
A total of four pitchers have an ERA of 1.91 and below.
Chipley (20-7) is batting only .261 as a team but they’ve allowed just five total runs in their last six games.
Senior Neal Adams (.347) is just one of a few players batting over .300 this season.
However, they sport a team ERA of 1.45.
Senior Bryson Howard is 8-1 this season with a 1.66 ERA. He has 102 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 63.1 innings pitched.
Chipley can also run the bases. They are a perfect 46-of-46 in stolen bases in 27 games.
Both teams have final four experience at the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins, so they know what to expect.
The team that commits the fewest mistakes will likely win this game, which is available pay-per-view via the NFHS Network.