WILLISTON - As defending Class 1A baseball champions, Williston coach Jim Smith expects his team will face a challenge every time they play.

If anything, Friday’s Newberry at Williston showed just how competitive District 7-1A will be.

The host Red Devils rallied with two runs in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings, and Ryan Braddock got the big hit in the eighth, driving home Zach Tolodoxi in a 7-6 victory Williston victory.

The Panthers (4-2 overall, 1-1 in District 7) had scored two runs in the sixth to take a 5-4 lead, and added another run in the top of the seventh, in which Cole Purvis opened with a triple and scored on a Dante Starks groundout.

But Williston (4-2, 2-1) loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom of the seventh, taking advantage of four walks, to score two runs to tie it.

“Early in the year we struggled, because we’ve had a lot of injuries and illness,” Smith said. “Difference in team from the start of season is this - the kids didn’t realize they had a target on their back.

“Everyone is going to give you their best shot. We finally started making the intensity of our opponents the last three games, and it starting to show. We preach to them everyday we are never out of it until it is over.”

Zach Tolodoxi, the No. 9 hitter in the Red Devils batting lineup, got on base his last three at-bats, two from hits and a walk. He opened the seventh with that walk, and scored, and opened the eighth with a single, and scored the game-winner.

Mikey Rey, the leadoff hitter for Williston, went 3-for-4 at the plate, including a double, and scored twice, including in the seventh. 

“He (Tolodoxi) had struck out four of his last five at-bats,” Smith said. “We tell him every time, it is a new at-bat, a new pitch. He bought into that.

“That (hit in eighth) was a big at-bat for us, basically was the game winner.”

Newberry, which made the Class 5A playoffs last year, returned to 1A this season and figure to contend for the District 7 title. But the league has some other teams to look out for, like Chiefland, Dixie County, Bell and even Trenton, which is off to an uncharacteristically slow start.

“We had our opportunities to win that game,” said Panther coach Mike Spina. “We left too many guys in scoring position tonight. We just didn’t get the job done.

“This doesn’t make or break the season for me. It’s too early. We are going to get better. We have the coaching staff and the players to do it. It was a very good test for early in the season.”

Starks went 2-for-3 with a solo home run and two RBIs to lead Newberry. Nathan Bailey had a two-run single in the sixth.

The Panthers host 4A Tallahassee Godby and Santa Fe next week, then have back-to-back district games at Bell and at home against Trenton on March 12-13. Williston hosts Santa Fe on Saturday, and has back -to-back home district games against Bell and Trenton on March 9-10.

“In my mind, the winner of our district will win the region,” Smith predicted. “It may be the toughest district in the state of Florida.
“I think there are five teams in the district that could win that region. We will see what happens.”