Viera seniors ready for one last ride at state baseball final four

There are a dozen seniors on this year's Viera High baseball team, some of whom have been playing together since their T-ball days, Here they are posing with the Class 6A regional championship trophy. The Hawks will play Doral Academy in the state semifinals Tuesday at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.

For some, the journey began when they were six years old, playing T-ball for the Viera Suntree Little League.

The others, well, they joined along the way and only made the group stronger, tighter.

Twelve seniors.

While there are younger guys who are key players on the Viera High baseball team, there is no question who will be front and center today – and. hopefully, tomorrow as well – in Fort Myers for one last ride together.

“It’s been awesome,” senior catcher Blake Strode said. “It’s like a brotherhood. That’s the only way you can put it.”

Viera (23-5) is scheduled to play Doral Academy (24-6) at 10 a.m. in the Class 6A state semifinals at Hammond Stadium. Should the Hawks be victorious, they will get to play for the state championship on Wednesday at 2 p.m. against either Sickles (28-2) or Winter Springs.

For some Hawks, this will be their second chance to play in a final four game. Viera made it to the state semifinals for the first time in program two years ago when they were sophomores and lost to Fleming Island. But whether they’ve been here before or not, it’s clear that there is no one else on the planet they would rather take the field with.

“The connection we have is truly unbelievable,” centerfielder Jack Malatino said. “I love these guys. Honestly, it’s kind of sad that we’re all leaving. …

“It hasn’t hit me yet. I know it’s coming, but it just doesn’t feel like it. I just can’t see myself playing baseball after (this).”

Malatino is part of the original core that started playing T-ball together. Strode was there, too. So were Cole Smith; Lucas Glendinning; Luke Campbell; Camden Wicker; Ryan Lewis and Logan Keith.

Over the years, they were joined by Alex Sosa; Fano Cruz; Adriel Torres and Kyler Dwiggins, who is unfortunately injured and out for the season.

Together they all form what is perhaps the greatest senior class Viera has ever had when you consider many of them have been a part of winning two regional championships in three years.

“This class, you look at it … you’ve got a senior behind the plate (Sosa), a senior at first (Cruz); a senior at second (Smith); a senior at short (Torres); a senior in left (Campbell); a senior in center (Malatino); a senior in right (Lewis) and a senior on the mound (Glendinning or Wicker),” Viera coach Brock Doty said.

“It’s senior loaded. Sometimes, you get those senior-heavy teams and they’re not all contributing on a regular basis. These guys are contributing every day and that’s probably the reason why we’re where we’re at.”

While they have photos of themselves holding the regional championship trophy, there are plenty of other photos taken through the years that stir up memories. And after all, it’s all about memories.

“I look back at the pictures and it’s just cool to see us this tiny, especially when our dads were coaching us,” Lewis said. “(My dad) and Cole’s dad were coaching our little league T-ball team. Looking back at the pictures is cool.”

While some teams talk about being a brotherhood, these guys have lived it. From spending weekends at each other’s houses (they recently celebrated Keith’s birthday) to a planned cruise this summer featuring a number of baseball players and other Viera graduating seniors, these guys have had a big impact on each other’s lives.

“My mom was a labor and delivery nurse,” Strode said. “She delivered a few of the guys. She was one of the delivery people for (junior) Cameron Simpkins.

“Me and Logan were on the same T-ball team. Me and Cole. A lot of the guys. We’ve been friends forever. Playing little league together all the years, then coming into high school.

“We had something that no coach can really say they always have. (Coach Doty) got lucky with the group of guys he got considering we were all best friends at the time, so close.”

The roles on the team have switched over the years.

Lewis was mostly a pitcher for the Hawks until he tweaked his elbow last summer. That caused him to focus more on his hitting and fielding and he’s now starting in right field. He had a big hit to start a rally against Lake Minneola in the regional quarterfinals.

“It’s been really fun,” he said. “I’ve been having a lot of fun in right field, getting at-bats and just taking it all in my last year.”

Strode, meanwhile, has played behind Sosa throughout his high school career and has displayed a level of maturity not often found on the prep level these days.

“It’s not just about the game of baseball,” Strode said. “(Sosa is) super smart. I’ve learned a lot from him. But it’s also taught me some things about myself. Life’s not always going to be easy. You’ve just got to keep pushing through every day and do what you can to help others.

“I know I might not be starting every day, but I do know my role on the team as helping as many of these pitchers or players as I can. I’m not going to be playing college baseball anywhere, but I know I can help others get to that point.”

While this might be the final week of baseball for some Hawks, others will be moving on.

Sosa signed a scholarship with the North Carolina State and is ranked by Perfect Game as the No. 1 catcher in the state of Florida. He will likely hear his name called at this year’s Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.

Wicker is heading to Wofford College. Glendinning signed with Indian River State College. Campbell will be attending the U.S. Naval Academy. Lewis will try to walk on at Sante Fe State College as a two-way player.

Whether their future includes playing baseball or not, this will be the last time they’re on the field together.

“I honestly can’t really take it in right now,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’ve still got more years to go in high school. It feels weird that this is probably our last practice. I still feel like there’s more to come.”

Strode said he walked out of his last day of school on Friday not thinking about school, or even the fact that he’ll be graduating this week. He was thinking about his friends and how their time together is dwindling.

“I think the last out of the last game will be when it hits me the most,” he said. “I mean, a lot of them are going to play college baseball. I’m not doing that. For me, I’ve just been trying to take in everything I can before it’s all said and done.”

The future must have seemed endless back in those T-ball days. Heck, even when they were freshmen, there was still plenty of time.

How quickly time flies.

“Oh man, it’s been amazing,” Malatino said. “I’ve loved every second. It’s kind of sad that it’s finally ending, but I made sure to live every day no matter what. I think I had a great four years and I’m ready for the future.”

Where that future leads for all 12 seniors remains to be seen. But if there is one thing they can all agree on, it’s that while their days of being teammates may be ending, their days of being a part of each other’s lives will continue.

That’s what being part of a brotherhood is all about.

“I think we’re all close enough to where we’re not going to let it all slip away,” Strode said. “I mean, sure, everyone’s going to go away and you’re not going to see them or talk to them as much, but I definitely don’t think we’re going to lose any friendships.”