By STEPHEN MCKAY
The Venice Little League 9-11-year-old All-Star team parlayed a big first inning into a 7-6 victory over the Golden Gate Nationals (Naples) at Atwater Community Park in North Port on Sunday evening. The win, in the championship game of the Florida Little League Section 6 Tournament, earned Venice a place in the state tournament next week.
Despite the nail-biting finish, it was a long time coming.
Originally scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. start, constant rain, storms and lightning delayed the actual start time by nearly nine hours. When the game finally started at 6:12 p.m., it was only after several other contingencies had been exhausted.
“We’ve been here with the kids since 8:15 this morning,” said Golden Gate coach Matthew Hermanson. “That includes a trip to Sarasota.”
As the rain continued to fall in North Port, the possibility of moving the game to Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota was considered. One Florida LL official even made four trips to Sarasota to check on the conditions. Despite taking on water all day, however, the facilities at Atwater remained in excellent condition.
After blowing out their previous two tournament opponents, 20-0 and 14-0, Venice had reason to feel comfortable with a seven-run first inning. The confidence level rose even more when hurler Gavin Capps, needed just five pitches to retire Naples in order in the bottom of the first.
With a run in the second, two more in the fourth and another three in the fifth, Golden Gate let Venice know they weren’t going to go away quietly.
“It was tense, very tense,” said manager Jason Allaire. “But I believed in the process and I believed in this team, so I was very confident at the same time.”
Allaire’s confidence was well placed.
Clinging to a one-run lead after it had already surrendered three runs in the fifth inning, Venice turned to Payton Gomez to escape a big jam. When Gomez entered the game, the bases were loaded with one out, and he got out of the spot with his team still out in front.
Gomez came back out in the sixth and preserved the one-run victory.
“Pitching isn’t our strong suit, but Payton was lights-out. What a job he did,” Allaire said. “With the bases loaded, he gets two outs and then pitches a shutout sixth. You can’t pitch better than that.”
While Gomez finished off the game, he also started it. Leading off the top of the first, he singled and scored the first run. After Braden Tinker walked, Carter Kunz drove them both home with a triple.
Tanner Wright then added another RBI with a base hit. Later, Wright made a diving catch in shallow left field.
In his second at-bat in the first inning, Gomez singled in the sixth and seventh runs.
“I’m very proud, but we still have states to deal with,” said Allaire. “We’ll enjoy this for about 24 hours and get back at it.”
Venice will be aided by an easy travel schedule at states. The 2019 9-11 year-old Florida All-Star Tournament will also be played at Atwater Park.
The games begin on Friday and conclude with the championship on Monday, July 15.