Nightmares turn to dreams for Dunedin baseball

Dunedin's Tyler Vogel began the 2019 season on the shelf with a broken wrist, but the senior and a couple other key contributors are healthy and ready to go as the Falcons prepare for Friday's Class 6A state semifinal against Lynn Haven Mobley.

DUNEDIN – The most successful senior class in Dunedin baseball history is making one last run toward glory.

The Falcons, playing in their fifth consecutive region final last Thursday, reached the state final four for the second time in three seasons by blanking Cape Coral Mariner 4-0 at Clearwater’s Frank Tack Park.

“We’re on cloud nine right now,” said senior shortstop Ray Sass. “Coming into this year we had one goal in mind and it was that we’ve got to get back to states and come home with rings. We’re one step closer now after this game.”

Elevating to cloud nine took weathering a few storms this season.

Darker clouds of injury and uncertainty circled the program early. A few key players weren’t ready to go early and the Falcons had to figure things out.

“It was injury after injury after injury and this dream season started out with a nightmare of sorts,” Dunedin coach Ron Sexton said, citing senior Tyler Vogel’s broken wrist and senior center fielder Brock Cunningham’s knee injury among others.

Turns out, being forced to play without a few key pieces early was a blessing in disguise.

“I think it made us stronger and it’s funny how things work out,” Sexton said. “Now Tyler’s in midseason form where most aces on most teams are maybe starting to peter out a little bit.”

Sass, who’s leading the team with a .393 batting average, said that this season’s injuries strengthened the entire roster by giving backups more playing time until starters returned to action.

“It comes down to resilience,” the Brown University commit said. “We’re a resilient ballclub; we’re a deep ballclub. We always talk about pushing the pack, pushing the guys in front of you, so that if something does happen like that guys are right there to step up when we need them.”

Not backing down to adversity has the Falcons on the doorstep of greatness. Since dropping a pair of late-April road games against Class 4A state champion Calvary Christian and IMG Academy, MaxPreps.com’s second-ranked team in the nation, Dunedin’s rattled off eight straight victories to reach Friday’s 10 a.m. Class 6A state semifinal against Lynn Haven Mosely.

“It’s incredible,” Vogel said of the path this year’s team traveled to get to this point. “It’s breathtaking, honestly. You’re looking in the future, but you just have to focus on where you are now. We had our crack the last time. We didn’t come through. But I think we have a good chance this year.”

That “last time” Vogel mentioned came in 2017. The Falcons’ time in Fort Myers ended with a 7-0 defeat to Hillsborough County’s Jesuit High.

Reaching Saturday’s 4 p.m. state championship game will require defeating one of the state’s best top programs in recent years. Mosley (25-3) is in the postseason for the eighth consecutive season and has reached the region finals seven straight years and the final four five times. The one thing the Dolphins have not been able to accomplish is winning it all. They lost in the title game in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

A morning win Friday over Mosley would send Dunedin (22-8) to its fifth championship game in program history and first since the 2008 Falcons won it all at Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium. Waiting for the Dunedin-Mosley winner will be either Jesuit (25-5) or Miami Springs (27-3).

The Falcons aren’t led by one or two overpoweringly dominant talents. They win together and lose together, and Sexton praised his group for that unity.

“I told them I’m really proud how they’ve bought into team baseball,” he said after Thursday’s win. “It’s the most unselfish group I’ve ever coached and most talented. If you want to go to Fort Myers and win a ring, that’s what team’s baseball is about.”