The night began with the kind of moment that made the heart sink.
It ended with a dogpile.
The Viera Hawks weren’t going to be denied. Not this time.
It showed in the number of players that came up big for Viera Saturday night as the Hawks rallied twice to defeat Bartow 11-8 in the Class 6A baseball regional final at the USSSA Space Coast Complex.
Viera is heading to the final four for the first time in program history.
“I tell you, this is special,” Viera coach Bob Doty said. “This is a special group. We’ve never done this before. The third time’s the charm.”
Viera (20-6) will play Fleming Island (24-5) in the state semifinals at the Century Link Sports Complex (Hammond Stadium) in Fort Myers. That game is scheduled for Friday at 4 p.m.
Viera reached the regional final in 2017 and 2019 only to come up short. And it certainly didn’t look good for the Hawks Saturday night when Bartow’s Jonathan Vastine sent the first pitch of the game over the wall in right field and the Yellow Jackets went on to take a 2-0 lead.
However, the Hawks got a big night from seniors Liam Samuels and Cole Teply along with sophomores Lucas Glendinning and Alex Sosa – plus a host of others – to turn things around.
“This group of guys … it’s a different type of team than I’ve ever been a part of,” Teply said. “Going into the bottom of the seventh inning, if we’re down, there’s no lack of confidence in the dugout that we’re not going to win the game.”
Fortunately for the Hawks, they didn’t need the kind of drama in the bottom of the seventh inning that led them to walk-off victories in the regional quarterfinals and semifinals. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy night, either.
Trailing 2-0 in bottom of the first, Viera tied the game when its first three batters all drew walks and Samuels – just as he did in the semifinal win over New Smyrna Beach – delivered a two-strike hit. This one drove in two runs and tied the game.
“I just try to work the count and get my pitch,” Samuels said. “I don’t like being 0-2, but hey, I’ll take it.”
Senior David Rusnak, who started the game for Viera, pitched well in his three innings of work. The lefty was not helped out, however, by two defensive miscues on the same play that led to another Bartow run and helped set up the Yellow Jackets (20-12) to get one more and re-take the lead 4-2.
If there has been one issue for Viera in the postseason, it’s been that the Hawks have squandered a number of scoring opportunities early in games. But that wasn’t the case Saturday night.
Luke Campbell started off the second with a walk. Rusnak squared to bunt but was walked on four pitches and the Hawks eventually loaded the bases with one out. After Sosa hit a sacrifice fly, Teply hit a two-out double that scored two runs and gave Viera a 5-4 lead.
After Rusnak sent Bartow down in order in the third, the Hawks made a pitching change, bringing in Glendinning, a sophomore right-hander.
“I just knew I had to go in there and hit my spots,” Glendinning said. “Every time I didn’t hit my spot, they took advantage of it. They’re a good swinging team, give credit to them. But we had to go in there and get it done. At the end of the day, it’s for the seniors. Everything’s for the seniors. They’re the heart of the team.”
It was Glendinning who did a nice job backing up a throw from center fielder Jake Vermeire that helped catch a Bartow runner taking a turn at third base in the fourth inning. Glendinning flipped the ball to third baseman Ben Schleeper – who made several nice defensive plays on the night – for the tag and the inning-ending out.
With Teply unavailable to pitch after Wednesday’s semifinal outing, Glendinning came up big when the Hawks really needed him. The sophomore right-hander credited his catcher.
“Sosa’s a phenomenal pitch caller,” Glendinning said. “I play summer ball with him, so we’re getting that connection going. I love him catching me. He calls the right pitches every pitch. He mixes it up a lot.
“Everything’s him. Nothing’s me. I don’t shake off at all. I put my trust in him and he’s got my back.”
The Hawks then made it a 7-4 game in the bottom of the inning. Once again, it was Samuels with a two-out, two-run single.
Bartow, which had some impressive hitters, wasn’t done. The Yellow Jackets would cut the lead to 7-6 before Viera pulled away again with a run in the fifth and three more in the sixth to go up by five heading into the top of the seventh.
Samuels would eventually come in to close the door, ending the game with a strikeout.
“It’s a great (feeling),” Samuels said. “I just reared back, gave it everything I had and thankfully, he didn’t hit it.”
And that was it for the Hawks, who have had a magical season, going 5-2 in one-run games with at least four walk-off victories. A number of the seniors were on the 2019 team that lost in the regional finals. And they were part of last year’s team that was loaded with 11 seniors but had the season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
They figured they would be good in 2021. But this group has proved it’s special.
Samuels finished the game with two hits and four RBIs. Glendinning also had two hits and drove in two runs. Teply and Sosa both had a pair of RBIs as well. Senior second baseman Zach Zulawski also had an RBI.
“There have been so many moments,” Samuels said. “The amount of walk-offs we’ve had, so many close games that we’ve won. This team, from Day One, I knew we would be special being a senior.
“It’s just a great feeling. All of us have really come together.”
They certainly came together after the last out, too, mobbing Samuels on the mound, spraying water everywhere and jumping on top of each other in celebration.
“I just kind of threw my hat, threw my glove and I ran over to Liam and tackled him,” Teply said. “Everyone was giving us a hard time for the district championship because we didn’t dogpile.
“I made sure we dogpiled this time.”