LAKELAND — That wait is over.
Brandon Howlett smashed two home runs to propel George Jenkins into the FHSAA Class 8A state finals after an 8-1 win over two-time defending state runner-up Oviedo Hagerty on Tuesday at John Rodda Field.
No. 1-ranked Jenkins will face the winner of the Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas against Davie Nova game on June 1 at 1 p.m. at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers in an 8A semifinal. The winner heads to the state title game the next day.
“When (Howlett) hit the first one, that really just took the pressure off. It was awesome,” Jenkins head coach Chad Crosby said. “There are some outstanding Polk County teams that are tough enough to make us ready. I am glad we are representing.”
Howlett cracked his first – a towering two-run shot – over the right-field fence to stake the Eagles to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning.
In the fifth, he smashed a 385-foot shot over the center-field fence to push the lead to 3-0. It was the first of five runs scored in the inning.
“The past couple of games they have been pitching around me and tonight I just let everything come to me,” Howlett said. “I got a little antsy on the second one and came out of my shoes, but that is just the momentum. I was just coming un-glued.
“It’s crazy. We have a good group of guys and the good thing about our team is we never quit. When someone is not producing, someone else always steps up.”
Other big bashes in the fifth inning included an RBI single by Jacob Herbert and RBI single by Austin Blair, who added another RBI single in the sixth to cap the scoring at 8-1.
“The second pitcher that came in, I knew he was hanging curveballs so I was just sitting on that, and the first guy, I was just trying to hit a fastball deep so I could get a guy into score,” Blair said. “We got the best team and the best guys and now we are going to go and try to win (state).”
On the mound, junior left-hander Daniel Batcher was superb, winning his third consecutive regional playoff game. He went all seven innings, giving up just two hits – one in the first and one in the seventh – while yielding one unearned run. He spun off 93 pitches – 58 for strikes – while fanning six and walking only one.
“Batcher has just been outstanding,” Crosby said. “The guys, they just love him.”
It is only the second trip to the state tournament for Jenkins, which lost to eventual state champion Naples Barron Collier 4-2 in the 5A semifinals in 1997.
No team from Polk County has won an FHSAA baseball state championship since Santa Fe Catholic won the 2A state title in 1995, turning back Miami Westminster Christian 3-1 in the final.