As the celebration erupted on the field, Tyler Blanchard found himself in the middle of everything.
The junior lefty had just pitched a gem over seven-complete innings on the mound for Dr. Phillips — giving up only one run and three hits, while striking out seven to lead the Panthers (17-8) to a 2-1 win over Olympia (15-13) in the Class 7A, District 5 title game Friday, April 30.
“It was definitely a team effort — I couldn't have done it without the people behind me — but overall just a great team win,” Blanchard said. “I threw well — can’t complain about that.”
Off to the side as his team celebrated was head coach Ray Evans, who was enjoying a moment that he had been looking forward to for a while.
With last season ending prematurely — before the district tournament — due to COVID-19, it had technically been two years since his guys last won the district championship. For Evans, the win on Friday night felt a bit more special.
“These guys worked for everything they got tonight,” Evans said. “They were hot early, cold in the middle, got hot late and they were playing for something a little bit bigger than themselves.
“I couldn't say enough about the pitching performance tonight — giving one up early and then just shutting down the door,” he said. “The defense that you saw in the middle, (and) our outfielders, nothing went wrong — we played solid.”
Olympia matched the Panthers almost stride-for-stride in every way, and on the mound the combo of Robert Hurlock, Jayson Kowalski and Max Cutts largely shutout the Panthers, as they gave up a combined two hits and two runs (one earned).
“Take your hats off to Olympia, because it was just as solid a game for them as it was for us,” Evans said. “You know we might see each other again.”
In the top of the first inning the Titans would score their lone run of the game, when Nico Banez scored from third on an error by Panthers’ left fielder Jeremiah Granatstein with two outs before Blanchard got Ben Murrell to ground out to end the inning.
The Panthers answered back in the following inning when — after a pair of walks — Derek Lopez scored on a passed ball, before Granatstein hit an RBI double to center to score Gian Mejias to give Dr. Phillips the 2-1 lead.
Despite both teams going without runs the rest of the game, things got iffy for both teams during the third and fourth innings.
In the top of the third the Titans found themselves with a bases loaded advantage with no outs following two hits and a Blanchard error on a ball bunted his way by Banez. What happened next was the moment that proved to be the ultimate game changer.
“After I made that error I kind of got down on myself, but I flushed it after the first pitch to the next batter,” Blanchard said. “I don't know, I just went pitch by pitch and I was like, ‘You need to get out of this inning,’ so I just dug deep and threw through it.”
A comebacker rolled toward Blanchard, who threw to Lopez at home for the force out before sending a ball hurling toward Logan Wirt at first to complete the clutch 1-2-3 double play. A strikeout of Justin Lewis by Blanchard would end the stressful inning, and from there on out Blanchard would not give up another hit.
“Oh it was like a stress reliever,” Blanchard said of the strikeout.
Dr. Phillips had its own bases-loaded opportunity in the bottom the fourth, but like Olympia couldn’t convert — leaving runners stranded on base thanks in part to strong pitching from the Titans.
With both teams making it to the championship game, both Olympia and Dr. Phillips automatically advance to regional play of the state playoffs. The Panthers will play host to Osceola, while the Titans will travel to Lake Nona. Both games are slated for a 7 p.m. start time Friday, May 7.
“Our No. 1 is going to be able to go, their No. 1 is going to be able to go and it’s going to be a dog-eat-dog game at our place,” Evans said.