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Making It A Habit: Bolles Returns To State Championship

Gunner Boree manages to beat the tag on a play at the plate that gave Bolles the deciding run in the bottom of the first inning.

Up against a formidable opponent on the biggest stage, the Bolles Bulldogs showcased the grit and poise of a champion. Having won the last two Class 5A state championships, the team understood the target it carried on its back heading into Thursday’s state semifinal. Bolles proved up to the challenge, jumping ahead early and then holding the line from there for a 4-1 win over the Nature Coast Sharks, at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.

The Bulldogs have now earned the right to join elite and special company in Florida history, with the chance to become only the fourth Florida baseball team to win three straight state championships. Bolles (24-5) will take on Monsignor Pace in Saturday’s title game, with an opportunity to join Westminster Christian, Archbishop McCarthy and the Canterbury Cougars as the only teams to ever three-peat.

“To be in this position three years in-a-row is just incredible,” Bolles manager Mike Boswell said. “I’m honored to be their coach and to be in this situation with them.”

Bolles wasted no time in going right to work, as the Bulldogs jumped out for two runs off Sharks starter Jonathan Gates in the bottom of the first. Max Ferguson got it started by smacking a double into right field, and starting pitcher Hunter Barco followed by crushing a shot deep to center field for an RBI triple and Bolles’ first run. Paul Kuehn then lifted a fly ball that drifted along the right field line, where Sharks right fielder Zach Funkhouser made a nice leaping grab that unfortunately left him without enough momentum to get the throw home in time to stop the runner from tagging up and scoring.

“That is how it has gone all year; if I can go everyone else can go with me,” Ferguson said. “We set the tone early. Getting a single and taking the extra base just gets everybody fired up early in the dugout, and they want to go with you. It was just one of those days for us where everything was working. Gates is a really good pitcher, but he made a couple of mistakes. Every time he did we took advantage of it.”

Junior Hunter Barco went the distance on the mound to earn the win for Bolles.

The Bulldogs went right back to work adding to their lead with their next swings in the second. Will Shepherd had a base hit to right field, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and then scored on a throwing error.

“That left-handed pitcher was very good,” Boswell said. “He gave us everything we could do, and we were very fortunate to score a couple of runs early, and then let our left-hander settle in. They played tough though. They didn’t give up and they fought hard.”

Nature Coast answered back to get on the scoreboard in the top of the third. Funkhouser was hit by a pitch, stole second and then came racing around third base to score thanks to a liner into center field for an RBI single from Gates to make it a 3-1 ball game.

“They showed up ready to play,” Boswell said. “I don’t think they were intimidated, and there is no reason to be, because they’ve earned the right to be here. I think they gave us their all, and we were lucky to score a couple early that made them take a step back. With Hunter on the mound with a lead it is tough to get to him.”

Bolles got that run right back in the bottom half of the third. Ferguson laced a shot deep to center for a lead-off, stand-up double, and Mac Forrester dropped down a great sacrifice bunt to move the runner to third. Barco then supplied a high fly ball deep to center, leaving the defense with no hope of stopping Ferguson from tagging up and scoring on the sac-fly RBI.

Even with the Sharks throwing their best punches, the Bulldogs were unflappable. Both players and coaches stayed within themselves to remain poised and in control.

“We’ve been fortunate to be here before, so we know to expect and the big stadium didn’t spook us,” Boswell said. “We know we came to try and win another state championship, and we were going to go and give it everything we had. We just keep playing hard and grinding, and these guys are just incredible. When we show up, it is about business. We talk about how we have to be the toughest team on the field, because everybody wants to beat the guys who have been on top.”

Bryce Kirksey puts the bat on the ball while hitting in the first inning.

Playing in the state Final Four for the very first time, even the Shark players admitted afterwards that they were not prepared for the intensity they faced right away. Certainly it is a challenge to play with the emotions of such a grand moment, while stile keeping yourself grounded and treating the moment like any other game.

“We know when we get here that everyone is going to be fired up, and especially the other teams that haven’t been here before,” Ferguson said. “It kind of puts a target on our back, being back-to-back state champs. So we know we have to do everything we can to go out there and beat them. We’re just playing the other team in the dugout; nothing changes.”

What also did not change is the result when Barco pitches for the Bulldogs. The junior left-hander picked up his ninth win of the season while also delivering his third complete game. The southpaw recorded four strikeouts while allowing one earned run on two hits and three walks.

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