BY GENE NARDI
The Royal Palm Beach High School baseball team hosted perennial power St. Thomas Aquinas High School on Tuesday, May 12 for the Class 7A Region 4 title and shut out the state’s top-ranked team 4-0.
Triston McKenzie, standout pitcher for the Wildcats, was only 3 years old the last time Royal Palm Beach made it to the regional finals in baseball.
“For the school, this win is great. It’s bringing a lot of attention to baseball, and it’s bringing a lot of tradition to the team,” McKenzie said. “It’s kind of humbling to know we’re the first team to do this since 2000.”
Wildcats coach Kason Gabbard was a left-handed pitcher for that 2000 squad.
“It’s huge for our program, and I wanted to build up this program when I came back,” Gabbard said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re finally clicking and doing things right.”
Royal Palm Beach (18-12) was the third seed through the district playoffs, and had to battle through some stiff competition against teams from Olympic Heights, Dwyer, Atlantic and Coconut Creek-Monarch high schools before eventually making it to the finals against the 22-4 Raiders.
At the top of the first, it appeared as if St. Thomas would draw first blood when its first batter stole two bags, landing safely at third, but a solid play by Wildcats catcher Nick Toney to make the tag at the plate kept the game scoreless and proved pivotal in the momentum of the game.
Brandon Hernandez came up big in the bottom of the first, when he launched a line-drive RBI triple down the first-base line to give the Wildcats an early 1-0 lead. McKenzie next doubled, driving in Hernandez for the score, to extend the Royal Palm Beach lead to 2-0 at the end of the first inning.
Both teams clashed at each other for the next three innings, but it was the Wildcats who would strike again. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Hernandez singled and McKenzie walked.
“He has been solid for us all year, and he’s one of the leaders on the team,” Gabbard said of Hernandez.
Centerfielder Sean Malynn launched a single through the middle that dropped in front of the Aquinas outfielders, sending in both for the 4-0 advantage.
McKenzie mounted a series of strikeouts, six of the seven Aquinas batters, until the final inning, when the Raiders managed three singles, loading the bases.
But solid defensive play in the final inning shut down any chances of Aquinas mounting a comeback and gave RPBHS the regional crown.
“We knew they had speed, liked to steal bags and we had to be quick to get the ball out of the gloves,” McKenzie said.
“When people predict other teams to beat you, we feed off of that,” Gabbard added.
Royal Palm Beach played Sarasota in the state semifinals game on Wednesday at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, but the results were not available by press time.
ABOVE: Brandon Hernandez is safe as he dives into third base.