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St. John’s Country Day Advances To State Final

Finn Howell celebrates after Connor Moore’s two-run home run, which followed his RBI double in the fifth inning.

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Selfless, team baseball got them this far, and now there is only one more step to go.

The St. John’s Country Day Spartans held on for a tough, 3-2 victory over the Mount Dora Christian Bulldogs on Wednesday morning, in the FHSAA Class 2A state semifinal at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. The Spartans scored all their runs during a pivotal fifth inning, and then stranded the tying runner on third base to hang on for the victory that advances them to Thursday’s state championship.

Country Day will face the Out-of-Door Academy Thunder in the finale, after the Thunder (23-3) defeated the Trinity Christian Warriors in Wednesday’s other 2A semifinal.

“It was a great ball game,” St. John’s Country Day Manager Tom Lucas said. “Mt. Dora Christian gave us everything that we could handle and they were not going to give up. I have a lot of respect for those guys. They are a young team, but they are a talented team. They don’t just give away championship rings; you’re going to have to earn it. You have to earn it on the field.”

The Spartans (24-6) certainly made the crucial plays when they needed them most. After a challenging tug-of-war resulted in four scoreless innings and seven total stranded runners, Country Day strung together several key hits to take control in the top of the fifth inning.

The top of the Spartans’ batting order has wrecked havoc all season, and that trend continued in the fifth. Luke Shannahan was hit by a pitch and then advanced into scoring position thanks to a sacrifice bunt from Walker Matthews that turned the lineup back over, where starting pitcher and leadoff hitter Finn Howell delivered with a deep shot to the left field warning track that went for an RBI double that plated Shannahan with the first run of the game.

Connor Moore’s two-run home run was the difference for the Spartans.

That brought up senior Connor Moore, who supplied the winning runs on the biggest hit of the day. Moore connected on an 0-1 pitch and sent it sailing high and deep to left field, over the fence for a two-run home run that traveled an estimated 420 feet.

“My mindset was to hit the ball hard and see where it goes,” Moore said. “I got a hold of it and it went out. I was excited, and I was thinking triple right out of the box. I figured it would get in the gap and I was getting three, but once I rounded first and I saw the outfielders were not moving anymore I knew it went out. I started jumping and it was exciting.”

It was Moore’s 11th homer of the year, only this one sent his club to the state finals. The Florida State University commit has been red-hot during the playoff stretch, hitting five home runs while going 10-for-20 with with eight runs and 14 RBI in six total playoff games.

Walker Matthews drops down a sacrifice bunt for the Spartans.

“The ball is definitely coming in big right now,” Moore said. “If I’m sitting back and being patient then that is when I am going to hit my best. I was seeing curveballs all day, so I figured one was coming. Finn hit the double down the left field line and it got me hyped up. I went in there thinking that I need to do something big, and he hung a curveball and I was able to sit back on it.”

That sample of offense proved to be enough for Howell, who went the distance on the mound. He allowed one earned run on six hits, and he struck out nine.

“With our schedule this entire year, I have been in those situations literally every time that I have pitched. So it is nothing new to me. I just knew that if I get the ball to Brad tomorrow, we’d be fine,” Howell said, referring to Thursday’s starter, Bradley Hodges.

Even despite running into trouble late, a mound visit from Coach Lucas convinced the skipper that he was still good to go. Bryan Schutte singled to lead off the seventh, and then gave way to courtesy-runner Kyle Turnage. Dallas Dale then connected for a base hit that put runners on the corners, which brought Coach Lucas out to the hill with a big decision to make with his pitcher.

“Once he told me that he wanted to finish, he was going to stay in the game,” Lucas said. “He throws a lot of strikes. He throws three different pitches and he throws a lot of strikes.”

Finn Howell went the distance on the mound, striking out nine while allowing six hits.

Turnage scored off a passed ball to pull the Bulldogs (22-7) within a run, with Dale also moving into scoring position representing the tying run. But Howell got an infield flyout to end the game and send the Spartans to the title game.

“It was a great atmosphere out there, so it was definitely different. But to me, it was like every other game,” Howell said.

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