HERITAGE HARBOUR — Caleb Whitson hadn’t taken the mound since sustaining a wrist injury in May, and his coach had no intention of letting him pitch.
After all, a state title was on the line.
But, the 12-year-old wanted the ball in his hand and wouldn’t settle for anything less, even though he had not practiced all week.
His coaches and teammates soon rallied around him.
In a must-win game and with his back against the wall, Whitson tossed a complete game, propelling the Manatee Cal Ripken 12U All-Stars to a 6-4 victory over Winter Park July 15, in Sanford.
With the win, Manatee captured its first state championship, after finishing as the state runner-up last year.
“It feels like the world to me,” Whitson says of being a state champion. “I was shocked. When we were losing by three, I just knew I had to keep my head in the game.”
Manatee coach Scott Kolbe commends his persistent pitcher.
“Caleb has been our heart and soul all year,” Kolbe says. “Caleb was a warrior.”
Manatee opened its state tournament with an 11-8 extra-inning victory over Palm Beach Gardens July 11.
Ian McLean hit a pair of home runs, including a three-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to secure the victory.
Manatee responded with a 14-4 victory over South Daytona July 12 and a 12-2 victory over Cape Coral July 13. Hunter Smith pitched a complete game against Cape Coral, which was shortened to four innings due to the 10-run mercy rule, and Collin Goda hit a pair of home runs.
“The thing that separates us from other teams is that we are all contributors,” Smith says. “You never know who will make the key hit or key play, because our coaches have worked us to our best potential. We encourage each other and have a great friendship with one another.”
Advancing from the winners’ bracket, Manatee suffered its first loss of the tournament — a 5-0 loss to Winter Park — July 14.
Manatee trailed 3-0 early in the championship game, but Manatee kept battling and eventually overcame the deficit and walked away with the championship.
“We had to fight in the championship game to scratch every run across,” Kolbe says. “We were facing an elite pitcher. We took advantage of a few mistakes and got to impose our will in the running game. We were able to come up with a couple of huge hits at huge spots of the game; and, then, our defense made no mistakes and closed it down.”
Following the final out, the players ran into the middle of the field in celebration.
“We were grinding the whole game,” Goda says. “We were all so mentally focused trying to win each pitch that when I realized there were no more (outs), I jumped in the air and ran to my team.
“It’s something we have practiced very hard to get,” Goda says. “I guess all the sweat and hard practices paid off.”
As the state champions, Manatee will now advance to the Southeast Regional Tournament, which begins today and runs through July 29, in Palm Beach Gardens.
“I’m looking forward to playing the best of the best and giving it our all,” Goda says. “We are united as a team, so I like our chances.
“What separates us is what motivates us to succeed,” Goda says. “There is a higher level of intensity and commitment that goes beyond just me, because we are a Christian team. My coach constantly tells us, ‘Trophies gather dust, but the character you develop getting them stays with you forever.’”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].