LAKELAND — The Polk State Eagles are soaring – all the way to Colorado.
On Monday, Polk State Baseball clinched the title game in the FCSAA/NJCAA Division 1 Gulf District Baseball Tournament, beating Palm Beach State 8-4 at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium.
The team's school-record 45th win of the season yielded Polk's first state title since 1992 and moves the Eagles on to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., later this month. It will be the first JuCo World Series appearance in Polk State history.
"This is about as good as it gets," said Head Coach Al Corbeil, standing on the field at Joker Marchant just moments after his team had secured the victory.
The victory on Monday capped a season of highs — including the Suncoast Conference Championship and a No. 1 state ranking — and a rollercoaster ride at the state tournament.
Polk State began the tournament on Thursday, handily beating Northwest Florida State. The next night, what looked like a clear victory over Palm Beach State turned into a heartbreaking loss when umpires ruled that second baseman Conor Szczerba had failed to touch home plate while scoring what would have been the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Palm Beach came back to win 4-0 in 11 innings.
That loss could certainly have rattled other teams beyond repair — but not the Eagles.
"We had a really sorry situation, but they bounced back and laid it all out there," Corbeil said.
On Saturday, the team shrugged off Friday night's disappointment, beating #2-ranked Santa Fe 3-1, and rode the momentum to a 14-0 shutout of defending state champ Chipola.
Come Monday morning, the Eagles had one last hurdle to cross on the way to the title game — another matchup against Northwest Florida. The Eagles took care of business, winning 4-0, to earn an afternoon rematch with the Panthers of Palm Beach.
The matchup against Palm Beach seesawed all afternoon, with Eagles fans lurching between visions of victory and the dread of defeat.
Polk's Matt Singletary snatched the first run of the game on a passed ball during the bottom of the second inning. Palm Beach responded in the top of the fifth, tacking on two of their own.
Polk tied the score at two in the bottom of the fifth, after Erik Hindmon singled, batting in Szczerba.
In the top of the seventh, Eagle stomachs churned as Palm Beach broke ahead with two more runs, moving the score to 4-2.
By the bottom of the eighth, with the heat and the nearly six hours of play surely taking a toll, everything was on the line for the Eagles.
Kyle Chastain led off with a single to right field, and advanced through the bases thanks to a bunt from Brett Jones and a fly out to center from Drew Reeves. A single to left-center from Ryne Knuth was enough to bring Chastain all the way home. From then on, the game belonged to the Eagles, with Knuth, Szczerba and Colt Hankamer posting runs in short order.
The Eagles put away the Panthers, 8-4.
Amid the swarming fans, clicking cameras and high-fives, Reeves beamed — but said the outcome was exactly as the team had predicted.
"We knew we were going to win. We got the first game, against Northwest Florida, and we knew we had it," he said.
In a special presentation after the game, Athletic Director Bing Tyus told the team that their success is all a result of their perseverance – even after Friday's disappointing loss. He then presented Szczerba with a replica of Joker Marchant Stadium's home plate, a reminder of the setback that could have cost the team everything and the resilience the team showed in the days afterward.
Polk State's previous state title was won under then-head-coach Tyus in 1992. Being part of such an accomplishment yet again is a precious thing, he said.
"What's really special is that when we won in 1992, we had to go to a regional tournament, and we got beat," Tyus said, explaining that Monday's win sends the team directly on to the World Series. "They've worked all year long and persevered."
Following the game, Corbeil was recognized as FCSAA/NJCAA Coach of the Year, and Eagle players Alec Asher, Michael Danner, Brian Johnson, Jones, Knuth and Szczerba were named to the All-Tournament team, with Asher also picking up the honor as the tournament's top pitcher.
The NJCAA World Series begins May 26.