WINTER HAVEN - Last night Polk State pulled off a breathtaking, 10-inning, 5-4 victory over Hillsborough Community College, snagging its second consecutive Suncoast Conference Championship and the top seed in the upcoming state tournament.
"More than anything, this season is a tremendous complement to our guys. It was going to be really hard to duplicate the success we had last year, but they came out, and they stayed hungry," said head coach Al Corbeil.
The Eagles' home victory over HCC was hard-fought. The visiting Hawks scored three first-inning runs, but the Eagles tied everything up in the bottom of the inning. HCC then took a one-run lead in the fourth inning.
In the top of the ninth, Polk pitcher Steven Burnham posted one out, paving the way for right-handed reliever Chris Waltermire. With Waltermire on the mound and a runner on third, HCC bunted. Waltermire met the challenge, easily handling the crucial double play.
In the bottom of the ninth, Eagles second baseman Conor Szczerba hit a double down the left baseline. Shortstop Colt Hankamer stepped up to bat and made a sacrifice bunt, and Szczerba advanced to home on an HCC error — giving Polk a bonus inning to earn the win.
Waltermire denied HCC any chance of scoring in the top of the 10th, and Polk State fans watched with bated breath as the Eagles stepped up to plate. In the bottom of the 10th, Brett Jones led off with a walk for the home team. Ryne Knuth then contributed a line-drive single into left centerfield, advancing him to second and sending Jones to third. But it was Colt Hankamer who provided the crowd its collective exhale, connecting with the ball to bring in the game-winning run for the Eagles.
"It was definitely exciting. I put a good swing on the fastball and it went over the centerfielder's head. I'm so happy for my team," said Hankamer, who will graduate from Polk in May.
After Wednesday's game, the Eagles are 40-9 for the season and 16-5 in Suncoast Conference play. The team is ranked No. 1 in the state in the Florida College System Activities Association Coaches' Poll and as high as No. 5 nationally.
This is the third Suncoast Conference title in Polk State's 50-year history and is yet another high point in a pair of stellar seasons put together under Corbeil.
In addition to its Suncoast Conference win last year, the Eagles enjoyed rankings of No. 1. in the state and No. 4 in the nation. The squad also set a school record for consecutive wins (22) and the greatest number of wins in a season — 43. It also had more wins than any other team in Florida Junior College (JUCO) baseball, and 13 student-athletes won All-Conference honors.
The Eagles wrapped up last season by earning Conference Coach of the Year honors for Head Coach Al Corbeil and Male Collegiate Team of the Year at the Polk County Sports All-Sports Awards and Hall of Fame Banquet.
For all the trophies and titles these two seasons have produced, perhaps the greatest byproduct is intangible, said Polk State Athletic Director Bing Tyus, who had coached Polk to its only other Conference title prior to Corbeil's arrival.
"Polk State Baseball is contributing to a tradition of excellence for Polk State Athletics," Tyus said. "I'm so proud of the program and how it continues to compete. This is an exciting time for Polk State."
Tyus noted that championships are becoming the norm at Polk, with each of the college's athletics programs regularly vying for top honors. "Baseball is a bright spot in an athletics program loaded with bright spots," he said.
For his part, Corbeil is quick to deflect attention away from the accolades his progam has earned: "We're focused on the next game. This stuff is great for recruiting, and it's great for the guys on the team and our coaching staff — but at the beginning of our next game, the scoreboard will be all zeroes again. We'll have to earn everything we get."
The team will rest and celebrate its conference title over the weekend but will be back to its regular practice schedule on Monday, focusing all its energy on the state tournament, which begins May 3 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.
"We're pumped and ready to go," Hankamer said. "We've got some momentum behind us now."