OCALA-- Needing a spark early on in Mid-Florida Conference play, the College of Central Florida baseball team got one from freshman pitcher Boomer Biegalski.
Facing eventual MFC champion St. Johns River State following a 2-3 start with two straight defeats where they allowed double-digit runs, the Patriots found their ace and earned some much-needed momentum.
Biegalski limited the Vikings to one hit in nine innings and CF wound up with a walk-off win in the 10th inning, which started a span where the Patriots won 11-of-13 games in MFC play. The surge helped propel the Patriots into their first FCSAA State Tournament appearance in two years.
"We've had our ups and downs, but one of the ups was that surge we had in conference play," said CF head coach Marty Smith, who is taking the Patriots to the state tournament for the ninth time in his tenure. "We got some big wins when we needed them."
Biegalski (7-3, 2.87 ERA, 95 strikeouts in 91 innings) will get the start for CF when its faces Chipola College, the No. 1 ranked team in the country, on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Boomer and he gives us a shot to win every time out," said Smith. "He keeps us in the game and we have to go out and execute behind him in the field and at the plate.
"We know that there is going to come a time in the tournament where we are going to have to make a play in a close game. We'll rely on pitching and defense."
The stadium at Tiger Town is larger than most of the venues that teams play in throughout the season. Certain teams loaded up on home runs playing in what would be considered band boxes, but the Patriots (32-17) base their offense more on speed, timely hits and execution. Others who try to go for the fences in Lakeland, might be disappointed with long fly outs to the warning track, rather than home runs.
"Our lineup is peppered with guys who made first-team all-conference," said Smith. "We won't change the way we play our game."
Being the No. 1 team going into the state tournament hasn't been the best thing either. Last year, No. 1 ranked Tallahassee Community College went 0-2 and all four conference champions lost on the first day. Polk State won the championship as a No. 1 seed two years ago, but other than that, it has been hard for the best team of the regular season to get the job done.
"It really comes down to who gets hot. Strange things happen at state. Players drop fly balls and throw balls away," said Smith. "It's going to come down to who executes the best."
In its two state titles wins under Smith, CF was under .500 going into conference play both times. The last MFC team to win the state, Santa Fe in 2009, was also under .500 heading into MFC action, but pulled things together and finished as the NJCAA National Runner-ups in Grand Junction, Colo.
The Patriots will start off their quest against a talented Chipola team that won the Panhandle Conference and has produced former Major League Baseball All-Stars Jose Bautista and Russell Martin. Smith expects to see Taylor Lewis (7-3, 2.96 ERA), a Florida signee, or possibly Florida State-bound Michael Mader (6-3, 3.34 ERA).
The Indians will face a potent CF lineup that is paced by first-team all-conference picks Christian Khawam (.399, 22 doubles, seven homers, 47 RBI), Enderson Velasquez (.387, three homers, 33 RBI), Colby Brown (.281, two homers, 17 RBI) and Connor Crile (.340, two homers, 16 RBI). Collin Woody (.339, three homers, 35 RBI), Ryan Smith (.278, one homer, 24 RBI), Ryan Crile (.290, one homer, 13 RBI) and Justin Ambrosino (.319, three homers and 30 RBI) also have lent support for the Patriots at the plate.
CF will attempt to win its first state tournament game since 2009 when it won via the mercy rule against State College of Florida-Manatee when the tournament was held in Winter Haven.
This will be the first meeting between the Patriots and Indians since they met in the 2007 state championship game, which was won by Chipola. This time around, the Indians will see Biegalski, who has wins in seven of his last eight decisions and hasn't allowed more than four runs in his last nine outings.
Top hitters for the Indians are first-team all-Panhandle Conference selections Danny Mars (.399, four homers, 37 RBI), Josh Merrigan (.363, two homers, 50 RBI), Kevin Santa (.345, four homers, 31 RBI) and Ian Rice (.341, 10 homers, 51 RBI). Others to watch include: Jackie Miles, Jr., (.333, three homers, 21 RBI) and Bert Givens (.301, nine homers, 39 RBI).
Should CF get past the Indians, it will advance to the face either Miami Dade, Tallahassee or State College of Florida on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. A loss and the Patriots fall into the loser's bracket of the 10-team double-elimination tournament against TCC or SCF on Saturday night at 7 p.m.