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State champions!

Island Coast baseball team captures 4A crown

By CJ HADDAD - | May 25, 2022

The Island Coast High School baseball team captured the FHSAA 4A State Championship with a 8-7 win over Jensen Beach (eight innings) at Hammond Stadium. CJ HADDAD

From the swamp to the states, the Island Coast baseball team scratched, clawed and persevered to a historic state championship victory.

Ending around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the Gators triumphed over Jensen Beach 8-7 in eight innings to become the 2022 FHSAA 4A baseball champions – the first public school in Lee County to ever do so.

Island Coast (24-7) entered the top of the seventh down two runs and forced extra innings before plating a run in the top of the eighth and holding on to hoist the trophy.

“It feels great,” said Island Coast head coach Clint Montgomery of the state title victory. “There’s so many great things about this. From day one of the playoffs, I said this was more than just baseball; this was about our school and helping put our school out there. It was a mission.”

Originally scheduled for 7 p.m., the Gators and Falcons (26-5) didn’t get started until 10:15 after lightning delays pushed the schedule back. Both teams experienced similar circumstances the night before, as Island Coast went through a total of five hours in delays while Jensen Beach earned its trip to the finals Tuesday morning in the early hours.

The Gators celebrate their state championship Wednesday morning at Hammond Stadium. CJ HADDAD

When you’re battling for a state championship, fatigue is put to the side and all chips are on the table. There is no tomorrow. And both teams played to that tune.

Island Coast opened the scoring in the top of the third, as senior Eddie Boe Rodriguez came around to score via a Jake Mueller double to right-center. Jensen Beach answered with a run of its own in the bottom half of the inning to bring things even again.

In the fifth, the Gators showed why their offense is one of the best in the state. Rodriguez, who put together a tremendous tournament and was 3-for-3 on the night with a walk, singled with one out and Kevin Martinez drew a walk to put two men on for the Gators.

“Boe was out to prove something this week,” Montgomery said. “He played tremendous defense as well.”

After Mueller flew out to deep center, Emilio Gonzalez ripped a single up the middle scoring Rodriguez and Martinez. Next, Jordi Guerrero, whose bat had been quiet during the postseason, delivered the biggest hit of his life. The sophomore launched a homer to left that took little time to leave the park to put his team up 4-1.

The Island Coast baseball team after winning the State 4A title. CH HADDAD

“My teammates had my back and I stayed confident,” Guerrero said. “I made contact and good things happened.”

Montgomery said he told Guerrero before his at bat to not do too much. “Then he goes and blasts a home run first pitch and comes around the bases smiling at me.”

Things got dicey in the home half of the fifth for Island Coast, as the Falcons loaded the bases with nobody out. Gator starter Jake Billings, who did a great job of keeping his team in the game, then picked off the runner at first, surrendered a sac fly and got the cleanup hitter to ground out to keep the damage at a minimum.

Jensen Beach again loaded the bases with nobody out in the sixth, and this time the Gators weren’t so fortunate. Back-to-back leadoff walks and a single set the stage for Matt Kautz, who cleared the bases with a double to deep left field, knotting the game 5-5. A Patrick Ward sac fly and Patrick Gillen RBI single gave Jensen Beach a 7-5 lead before a double-play ball stopped the bleeding.

“We lost three of our seven games from exploding innings, and until this point in the playoffs we’ve played really good defense,” Montgomery said. “A lot of people have talked about our offense, but we’ve been really good defensively. In (the sixth) inning, we broke that philosophy of what we do.”

As for Montgomery’s demeanor during Jensen Beach’s five-run inning?

“It’s about staying calm,” he said. “I didn’t really have much emotion as (the inning was playing out) because your players feed off of that.”

The Gators needed to score at least two, or their dreams of capturing a championship would be dashed. They delivered.

Rodriguez played catalyst again for Island Coast and led off the inning with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Mueller, an Alabama commit, notched his second double of the game, as his hard grounder down the third base line just stayed fair and scored Rodriguez. The stage was set for Gonzalez (3-for-3, BB, 3 RBI), who again lined a single up the middle to bring around the tying run, sending the many Island Coast supporters on hand into a frenzy.

With not many arms available, Montgomery turned to Mueller, who is dealing with a torn labrum and has not pitched all season, to keep the Falcon offense at bay. He did.

Jensen Beach went down in order in the bottom half of the seventh and on to extras they went.

“I told him a week ago that we’re at the point in the season where if you’ve got to be used, you’ve got to be used,” Montgomery said. “I’m going to put my number one competitor on the mound in that situation if I can. You put one of your best out there and you hope for the best.”

Mueller said: “I told (Montgomery) I wanted the ball. I knew what we wanted to do and I had to get it done.”

With one out in the top half of the eighth, Billings was hit by a pitch and then stole second base to get into scoring position. The Falcons, now with two outs, decided to intentionally walk in red-hot Rodriguez to face Martinez. He made them pay.

The junior Flagler commit who has been the ace of the team on the mound and massive contributor with the bat, came through with a hard single to right that scored the runner from second to give his team an 8-7 lead.

“I wasn’t really too sure of myself (tonight), but once they walked Boe, I felt like I was being disrespected and I wasn’t going to tolerate that,” Martinez said. “So I decided to do something for my team and come up and bring that run in and that’s what happened. It’s a magical feeling. It’s a once in a lifetime moment. It’s indescribable and a feeling you never want to forget.”

Mueller, back on the mound to finish the job, got two quick outs in the eighth before back-to-back Falcon singles gave them signs of life. Those hopes were quickly extinguished, as Rodriguez fielded a grounder at short and flipped to second for the third out and the celebration ensued.

“We made a name for ourselves, and I think everyone in Cape Coral and Lee County knows that,” said Rodriguez, a Florida Southwestern State commit. “I think we’re going to have a lot of success in the future and I’m excited for that. You’re going to get the hardest working coach in the state at Island Coast.”

“It’s everything. I’m speechless. This is awesome,” Mueller said.

Montgomery, who has been at the helm for Island Coast since the program’s inception in 2010, said the moment was even sweeter being able to enjoy it with his family – especially his father David, who serves as his pitching coach. They would travel to FHSAA state tournaments each year from Montgomery’s youth until his time in high school, watching the dog piles at the end of each game, always wanting to experience that feeling. Now they have.

“Being able to hand that trophy to my dad, it may have meant more than winning the trophy,” Montgomery said. “People just don’t get to do that. It’s so great to have your family invested in what you do.”

Montgomery added that he’s grateful from all the support of not just Island Coast fans, but those from across the county rooting for the Gators to be the first public school in Lee to bring home the big one.

“These last two nights, it’s been Island Coast people (and) it’s been people throughout Lee County that have supported us,” Montgomery said. “I want to say thank you to all of the fans that showed up and made it an outstanding atmosphere.”

So, what will Montgomery remember most about this team?

“It’s hard to say, but just how crazy these guys really are. They are animals. It’s such a great marriage because they’re so loose and I’m so focused. I think they make me a little looser. I help make them a little more focused. I think we rub off on each other so good. It’s just a cult of personalities. We wouldn’t have done it if we had any other mindset than they had. They’re special kids and great baseball players. We’re fortunate.”

— Connect with Associate Sports Editor CJ Haddad on Twitter: @haddad_cj