Heading into last year's Region 2-1A final against Chipley, Bozeman had every reason to believe it was destined to make its fifth trip to Fort Myers for the state semifinals.
The Bucks had won 10 games in a row and 24 of 28 for the season and they had their dominant ace, right-hander Jeremy Todd, on the mound. Unfortunately for Bozeman, as is often the case in sports, the outcome you get is sometimes not the outcome you were expecting.
Chipley knocked Todd around for seven runs in five innings in that game and dealt the Bucks a devastating 8-3 defeat. It's a loss that stuck with and motivated the returning Bozeman players throughout the offseason.
"It was a really tough pill to swallow," Bozeman senior Brody Langlotz said Monday before practice. "I think myself, I didn't do what my team expected me to do. I thought about that every single day and worked really hard to try to be better this year."
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The loss was especially tough on Todd, who gave up more than half as many earned runs to the Tigers as he had given up in his previous 11 starts last season. Fortunately for Todd, he got another chance at Chipley in Friday night's region final, and this time, the senior and his teammates made certain the sequel would have a happy ending.
Todd dominated the Tigers in the rematch, pitching a one-hit, complete-game shutout with nine strikeouts while also adding three hits and four RBI in a 10-0 victory that sent the Bucks to the 1A state semifinals, which begin Wednesday in Fort Myers with a matchup against Dixie County.
"It was great," Todd said of the win. "They didn't just come in here last year and beat us, they embarrassed us last year. All throughout the summer and the fall that was the game we prepared for. It was good to go out there and not just beat them this time, but we kind of put it on them and that was special."
It was the second straight game in which the Bucks avenged a disappointing loss, routing Port St. Joe 16-1 in the region semifinals on May 10, just five days after the Tiger Sharks stunned them 3-2 in the District 4 title game.
Bozeman coach Jeff Patton said that the loss to Port St. Joe served as a wake-up call for his players, who immediately responded with a renewed focus and energy that has resulted in consecutive blowout victories.
"I think they realized that they can get beat," he said. "You've got to have complete focus because it can be over in a second. We talk about regret and living with regret if you don't do all the things you're supposed to do to prepare. They took (the loss) personal.
"The day before the district championship game we probably had the worst practice we've had in a couple of years. The Monday after the district championship game we probably had the best practice we've had this year. They decided they weren't gonna go out that way and I guess we made a little bit of a statement (in the rematch against PSJ) that we weren't going anywhere and then we played about as complete a ballgame as you could ask teenage kids to play against Chipley."
As a result, the Bucks will get a chance to return to Fort Myers for the first time since 2019 when they lost to Chiefland 7-2 in the semifinals.
Todd was a freshman on that team, though he didn't play in the state semifinals. He's going to get the ball Wednesday, however, and the senior said he is excited to make his final high school start on the biggest stage.
"It's gonna be super cool," he said. "It's my last start so I'm gonna make the most of it for sure. I'm taking care of my body and getting my arm ready to go and planning to let it ride one last time on the mound. It's exciting. I went my freshman year, but I'm really pumped for the other guys to go. A lot of other guys may not get that opportunity again. It's sort of our last ride together as a group."
'We all know Jeremy'
It should come as no surprise to see Patton give Todd the start in Bozeman's biggest game of the season. Todd has been the Bucks' unquestioned ace the last two seasons, leading the team this year with 10 wins while posting a 1.72 ERA with 107 strikeouts to just 10 walks in 69.1 innings.
It certainly didn't come as a surprise to his teammates that Todd put in the kind of performance he did against Chipley to make the trip to Fort Myers possible.
"Quite honestly, I've played with Jeremy for a long time and I've seen him have those games before," Langlotz said. "By the third inning with how dominant he was I knew we were in pretty good shape. He has those games, we all know Jeremy."
The Bozeman pitching staff has been more than just Todd, however, with Derek Hancock proving a dominant No. 2 with a 7-1 record and a 0.48 ERA in 43.1 innings and Brandon Hoang adding five wins and a 2.12 ERA in 29.2 innings.
While the staff is deep and talented, it's Todd who is relied upon to take the hill in the biggest games with the biggest stakes. It's a responsibility that Todd said he relishes.
"I love it," he said. "I feel like it takes some of the pressure off of the other guys. They can relax and just make plays behind me. They know when I'm on the mound I'm gonna throw strikes and put us in position to have a chance to win and it seems like in those bigger games when I do pitch my guys are always there to back me up."
Pitching was all Todd was able to do for much of this season despite being Bozeman's biggest bat in the lineup due to a left hand injury that kept him out of the batter's box for seven weeks.
It was a pretty big loss for the Bozeman offense, with Todd batting .511 with seven home runs and 52 RBI in 2021. However, the Bucks have still managed to average 10.4 runs per game, nearly identitical to last year's average, thanks in part to a career-year from Langlotz, who is batting .541 with two home runs, 14 doubles, four triples, 41 runs, and 33 RBI.
Todd seemed ready to have another monster offensive season after hitting two home runs and driving in 10 RBI through just five games before injuring the left hand, which not only kept Todd out of the lineup but also made the simplest act for a pitcher incredibly uncomfortable.
"I couldn't stand on the mound and receive the ball (from the catcher) because it hurt," Todd said of the hand. "I had to step off the mound and get as close to (catcher Connor Smith) as I could and he had to lob it back to me. It was tough for sure."
Todd said he is now back to '100 percent health' and has returned to the lineup for the past five games and is batting .611 with five doubles, seven runs, and 10 RBI over that span.
He'll only be able to help the Bucks on the mound once in Fort Myers, though if the Bucks can make it to Thursday's final, he'll have the chance to make a big impact on the game with his bat.
Patton said no decision had been made yet on who would start on the mound in the state championship game should Bozeman get there, though there was no real debate over what to do on Wednesday.
"We'll start Jeremy and if we win that one then we'll do whatever it takes to win on Thursday," he said. "We're not getting cute."
The one missing piece
Bozeman has by every metric been among the elite of the elite 1A baseball programs across the state over the past decade, posting seven 20-win campaigns over the last 10 full seasons, advancing to Fort Myers an average of once every two years, and winning 13 total playoff games over that span.
The one thing that has eluded the Bucks is the one thing they're chasing this week and that's a state championship ring. Patton said the program's inability thus far to get over that final hurdle is a conversation that he and his players are not afraid to confront.
"We've probably won more games in 1A than anybody has, been to more region finals and probably to more final fours than anybody else," Patton said. "But yeah, we need to get a win down there and get to a championship game. That's the next piece. Sometimes you do everything you're supposed to do and it just doesn't work out for you. It seems like that's happened to us a couple of times.
"But we're ready to go, we're not gonna shy away from it. It's something we talk about. The kids want to win a state championship, but we know we have to win Wednesday to even have a chance. We're putting our eggs in that basket and we'll figure out Thursday if we can get there."
To be a part of the first Bozeman team to capture that elusive title is something both Todd and Langlotz said would be very meaningful.
"It would mean the world to us," Langlotz said. "We've dreamed of this day since we were little kids. It would mean a lot to the alumni that came before us. This is a year we definitely could do it. If we go in with clear heads and a humble attitude then I definitely think we can do it."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: High school baseball: Bucks focused, determined to win 1st state crown