ALACHUA – Keystone Heights senior Tyler Keaton, with a stiff wind hitting him in the face in the batter’s box, smashed a long fly ball that seemed destined to stay above right field awhile before coming down and the burly bat-banger did not take his time circling the bases as he anticipated a flyout.
“I was running hard around the bases because I thought there was not way it would make the fence,” said Keaton, one of two “Bash Brothers” with teammate Gage Hall, who have emerged as a lethal duo in the batter’s box for coach Alan Mattox. “I think I got to third base when it finally landed over the fence.”
Keaton’s first inning blast earned two runs for the Indians with pinch baserunner Cason Harvey, running for Hall after a single, ahead of him on the basepaths pushing the Indians to an 8-1 district 5-5A championship over P.K. Yonge Friday night at host Santa Fe High School. Keystone Heights, the district 5-4A champion in 2015, advances to region 2-5A play with The Villages (15-9, the district 6-5A runnerup, 2016 region finalist) visiting Keystone Heights on Tues., May 9 for the region quarterfinal. P.K. Yonge travels to South Sumter for their region opener. In the bottom two region 2-5A games, 7-5A champion Nature Coast Tech (18-9) hosts 8-5A runner Lake Highland Prep (15-8, 2016 region semifinalist) and 8-5A champion Bishop Moore (15-12, 2016 state semifinalist) hosts 7-5A runnerup Hernando (15-12, 2016 region quarterfinalist).
“Our one through nine in the batting lineup all competed with Keaton getting us off to a good start,” said Keystone Heights coach Alan Mattox, now 21-6 overall. “I can’t say enough about Josh (Sheppard) on the mound and Conner O’Steen (reliever in the sixth) coming out and doing what he did. Fantastic. We have more pitching depth then we’ve ever had.”
Hall, the team leader with eight homers, said him and Keaton offer enemy pitchers two choices of who to deal with.
“I love it because I can do whatever I want up there knowing that he comes up next,” said Hall. “We kind of have our own home run hitting contest sometimes out there.”
With Josh Sheppard starting on the mound with four strikeouts in six innings and O’Steen slamming the door shut with six strikeouts after entering the game in the fifth inning.
With third baseman Nate Gagnon snatching a dangerous sliced hit just over third base snuffing out a groundout for the Indians’ defense, Sheppard settled in after a walk to end the inning with a strikeout.
From there, in the second inning, Keystone Heights added one more run with Tyler Ricketts, a third long ball hitter for the Indians, smashing a ball to the P.K.Yonge third baseman that was too hot to handle and forced a long overthrow that put Ricketts at third base. Two outs later, Gary Seale ripped an RBI single to centerfield to score Ricketts.
Up 3-0 into the third, Sheppard had a bases loaded scenario off a error by Gagnon, a walk and an error at second base from O’Steen, but answered with a O’Steen to Steve Rodrigues to Keaton double play that allowed one run and a flyout to stave off the threat.
“We came up big on defense when we had to,” said Mattox.
In the ensuing fourth inning, Keystone Heights exploded for three more runs with doubles from Gagnon and Pierson Lewis and an error on a hit by O’Steen putting the score at 5-1 with Hall hitting a fielder’s choice grounder for the final 6-1 inning finish.
Mattox put O’Steen on the mound who quickly sent fireballs to home plate to seal the game.
Keystone Heights (Mattox 1995-present, region playoffs 14 times)
3A championship games: 1995 (Lost 3A final to North Florida Christian), 1996 (Lost 3A final to Tampa Catholic), 2008 (lost in 3A state semifinal to John Carroll 5-2), 2009 (lost in 3A region final to Trinity Catholic 10-3, 2-4, 5-3)