By STEVE JACKSON
The Lennard Longhorns lost a heartbreaking nail biter 2-1 to Sickles May 15. The last inning playoff defeat ended Lennard’s baseball season and killed the Horns’ hopes for a chance to advance to the Florida 6A semi-finals. Sickles advanced and easily disposed of Gaither High. The 28-2 Gryphons clashed with 19-9 Winter Springs in the semi-finals in Ft. Myers May 22. The winner advanced to the championship finals of 6A in Hammond Stadium in Ft. Myers on May 24 against the winner of Viera versus Doral Academy.
It could have been Lennard traveling to Ft. Myers, but it was not to be as the Horns basically left too many men on base prior to the decisive bottom of the seventh inning at Sickles High in Citrus Park last week.
Lennard got off to an auspicious start in the Sickles game, scoring in the first inning to take a 1-0 lead on a senior Joseph Rivera RBI double, scoring junior Matthew Counts. Lennard could not get anyone else to home plate the rest of the game, however. A double-play in the 4th inning took away a run from Lennard as Sickles center fielder Hayden Yost nabbed a Longhorn runner at home. He was trying to score on a sacrifice fly. Longhorn senior pitcher Jackson Mueller proved to be as tough on the mound as the three Sickles hurlers. Mueller held the powerful Gryphons to only one unearned run. Lennard’s Carter Payne, a senior, came on in relief in the 5th inning. Sickles generated a rally against Payne, which was climaxed by soph Jordan Yost’s bases-loaded single with two outs in the bottom of the last inning (the 7th) to win the game 2-1 and the trip to the 6A semi-finals. Last year, Lennard fell 11-0 to Sickles in the Horns’ first-ever regional game, so this is just another indicator about how competitive and improved this senior-laden Longhorn squad was from 2022 to 2023.
Lennard Head Coach Victor Martinez termed the 2023 squad “the best baseball team ever at Lennard.” Martinez started as an assistant to former coach Kennedy Duran in 2007, Lennard High’s first year. Martinez took over as head coach prior to the 2021 campaign when Duran moved over to coach at the new Sumner High. As Coach Martinez pointed out, “This season we beat Plant High and Jefferson High who both made it to the state playoffs, and we almost beat Sickles!” Plus, Lennard has eight baseball senior players receiving scholarships for next year to four-year or two-year colleges, added the coach of the 18-10 Longhorns. Born and raised in Ruskin and a graduate of East Bay High, Martinez is already optimistic about the 2024 Lennard diamond squad. “Next year we may not have as good a record, but the team will be good,” he commented after the Sickles loss. Two of the Horns’ best returnees are rising senior Zack Bird, pitcher, and rising sophomore Mikie Locke, catcher.
According to Sickles Coach Eric Luksis, “We grinded one out tonight. That’s a tough, gritty team over there in Lennard, and it was a very different game than it was last year when we played them”
“Sickles is a great team — one of the better ones in the state,” Victor Martinez, added after the game. “I told our guys you still have to go out there and play the game and whatever happens, happens, and what happened tonight, I’m extremely proud of them.
“Lennard opened in 2007, but we’re turning it around and becoming known as one of the better baseball schools in Hillsborough County,” Martinez commented. “So, this was a learning experience, and you have to fail a little bit to learn, and we’re just going to build on this the best we can.”