Toelken goes distance in Vikings victory in opener

LAKELAND – It registered on every level – pitching, hitting, defense and payback.

Andy Toelken pitched his first complete game of the season, Nick Owens was 5-for-5, Hunter Alexander had five RBI, and the glove work was sparkling Sunday as St. Johns River State College smoked defending national champion Northwest Florida State College, 11-1, in eight innings on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Henley Field.

It was only the second time in program history St. Johns won its state tournament opener, the first since defeating Brevard (now Eastern Florida State) in 1970.

Alexander’s three-run homer in the eighth halted the game on the 10-run rule as the Vikings gained a measure of revenge on the club that ended its season in the 2015 state Final Four in Lakeland.

“We defended the field so well, we pitched, we swung the bats – everything clicked,” said SJR State coach Ross Jones. “We had so many guys who were here a year ago and (felt) the pain of giving up a six-spot in the ninth. Getting them in the first round of the tournament was something we wanted.”

A freshman, Owens wasn’t one of those guys who experienced last year’s 6-3 loss to Northwest Florida, but obviously he’d heard the stories.

The first of his five singles plated Omar Villaman with the game’s first run. Owens finished with three runs and two RBI, started a double play and made a handful of other sharp plays at shortstop.

“He’s the best shortstop in the state of Florida,” said Jones as his team cleared the home dugout. “You know what type of guy he is? The starters are letting the non-starters clean up. He’s in there picking up cups. That’s the kind of leader he is.”

Third in the batting order Sunday after having been as low as seventh as his average dipped below .240, Alexander continued his late-season surge, going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles to go with his clinching home run.

“He’s hot just at the right time,” Jones said.

The 13-hit offense was more than enough for Toelken (10-1), who was never in trouble. The only runner he allowed past second was Matt Hathcock, who homered to lead off the sixth. Toelken struck out five, walked one and scattered four hits. Handsome Monica, the .353-hitting Raiders catcher who entered the game second in the state with 13 home runs, was a quiet 1-for-3.

It was an ideal performance from Toelken, who would have gotten the ball had the game gotten to the ninth.

“He threw 92 pitches,” Jones said. “He’s won 19 games in two years. He’s a winner.”

St. Johns took a 2-0 lead into the fifth, then got three straight two-out hits – singles by Owens and Alec Dowell and a double by Alexander to go up 4-0. The Vikings responded to the Hathcock homer in the top of the sixth with four runs in the home half. At second after a walk and a stolen base, Wes Weeks wormed his way through a rundown to get to third as Matthew Rhodes, who had grounded to short, sped to second. Villaman blistered a two-out, two-run double down the line in right and Owens and Alexander followed with run-scoring hits.

Villaman and Owens were aboard when Alexander pounded a 3-1 pitch out to left center in the eighth.

Villaman and Dowell were both 2-for-4. Weeks had an RBI double.