Leesburg, FL – One play, maybe two. That’s how close the Leesburg Lightning were to securing a spot in the Florida League championship on Friday night. A bittersweet 7-6 loss, but a loss nonetheless, ended the season for the Lightning, who should no doubt be proud of their effort this season.
Leesburg Head Coach Rich Billings was proud of his team, who he said proved they could be special early on in the season. “It was pretty early on,” Coach Billings said of when he realized the enormous potential that his team possessed. “We were putting up a lot of runs, guys were pitching well and we were doing a lot of things really well. I knew we had a special team and a special group of guys.”
Winter Park took an early 1-0 lead after starting pitcher Hunter Caudelle (Georgia Gwinnett) hit the first batter he saw, Robert Scott (Lake Sumter CC), to start the game. After Scott stole second and advanced to third on a Chandler Roberson (UCF) infield single, Tyler Osik (UCF) drove him in with an RBI groundout.
The Lightning bats finally awoke from their playoff-long slumber in the bottom of the fourth inning when they plated five runs on the heels of hits by Frank Niemann (Tulane), Matthew Wiseman (San Jacinto), and Tucker Rayburn (Florida A&M). Winter Park starting pitcher Turner Scruggs (Winthrop) was shaken up halfway through the inning after slipping while backing up home plate and later left the game in favor of reliever AJ Chacon (Rollins). Matt Wiseman scored the fifth run on a Chacon wild pitch, but Luke Brown (Western Kentucky) and Tanner Clark (North Florida) both got out to end the inning with Rayburn stranded on third base.
A throwing error by Wes Weeks (North Florida) in right field allowed the Diamond Dawgs to close the gap to 5-2 in the top of the fifth, but Hunter Caudelle ended his night by retiring three straight batters to strand a runner on third base.
Winter Park had the bases loaded in the sixth but failed to score any runs. They would not waste a similar opportunity in the seventh. New pitcher Dominic Jeancola (Embry-Riddle) walked Brian Ellis (FGCU) and hit Cale Jones (Santa Fe) with a pitch before Cristian Rivera (Webber International) sent a no-doubt bomb over the right field wall, tying the game up at 5-5 and elevating the playoff drama to new heights. The long ball was the first given up by the Florida League All-Star Jeancola all season.
The Dawgs pushed two runs across in the top of the 11th after Jose Crisostomo (Miami Dade) misplayed a fly ball from Jeff Korte (Illinois Champaign) that turned into a two-RBI double.
Trailing 7-5 in the bottom of the 11th with their season on the line, the Leesburg Lightning did what they do best, fight. Sean Mootrey (Georgia Gwinnett) drew a walk and Luke Brown doubled down the right field line to put runners on second and third with just one out. Tanner Clark took a pitch in the back to load the bases with still just one out, sending the previously dormant Pat Thomas Stadium crowd into a frenzy. Jay Prather (North Florida) drove in pinch runner Walker McCleney (Alabama) with a sacrifice fly to center field to draw Leesburg within one. With two on and two outs, the Lightning put their faith in All-Star slugger Tanner May (North Florida), who was previously 0-5 in the contest. May put a charge into one and lifted the ball to deep center field, but it wasn’t far enough and center fielder Tyler Osik made the catch to end the game.
The Lightning once held a 1-0 series lead after Joshua Shapiro’s (Marshall) gem on the mound in game one, but the Diamond Dawgs, who were 1-7 against the Lightning during the regular season, showed heart and never gave up. “They were just better than us. The first half of the season we were a different team than we were the second half,” explained Coach Billings. “I think the guys could sense that but those guys (Winter Park) were tough so hats off to them. They were just a tough group of kids and sometimes that’s enough.”
Leesburg’s record-breaking season ended with a 28-13 regular season record, the longest winning streak in Florida Collegiate Summer League history, and the number one overall seed to boot. Despite their disappointing exit in the first round of the playoffs, this season was a long shot from something to hang their heads about for the cardiac kids in the black and gold.
Head Coach Rich Billings’ postgame message to his team was simple, “thank you.” “Thank you for showing up every day. They all had plenty of opportunities to go home if they had chosen to do that but they stuck it out and they showed up every day. They fought and they battled and they never quit. If they feel like they got better at something individually then summer was worth it, that’s what it’s all about.”
Matt Holzapfel (Elon University)
Author’s Note: It’s been an honor writing for the Lightning this season, and I hope that you readers enjoyed my recaps as much as I enjoyed working for the Lightning this season. It was a hell of a ride, thanks for taking it with me. This isn’t goodbye, just see you later. – MH