FORT MYERS -- The moment was a tough one for seniors of the Monsignor Pace baseball team.
When the awards ceremony to each state championship game is concluded and players from the runner-up team have received their individual medals, all seniors are called to the front along with their head coach to pose for cameras with the runner-up trophy.
And so there they stood, virtually the entire starting lineup, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning in a game that had started Tuesday night, trying as hard as they could to look into the cameras and act excited about the runner-up trophy.
But there would be no smiles. Only saddened faces with moist eyes. The pain and hurt was still way too fresh and raw from just 20 minutes earlier when an outstanding effort to shock the No. 1 nationally ranked, undefeated and defending state champion Pensacola Catholic Crusaders in the Class 4 A state championship had come up just a hair short.
Catholic plated two runs in the top of the eighth on a two-out, two-strike two run double by James McGhee to pull out a 7-5 victory at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
“I’m just heartbroken for our kids, especially for our seniors as they really laid it all on the line out there tonight,” said Pace coach Tom Duffin. “To come in here and take on a team of that caliber and take them right to the brink tells you everything you need to know about this group. I can’t be more proud.”
A few months ago, amid an up-and-down season that had seen them deal with assorted injuries that kept Duffin from putting all of his starters on the field at the same time, the Spartans might have taken a berth in the state title game and runner-up finish and run to the bank with it.
After everyone healed up and got on the field at the same time, everything came together and the Spartans caught a hot set of dice, rolling through the regional playoffs outscoring North Broward Prep., Coral Springs Charter and St. Brendan by a combined score of 25-7. Then came some late-game dramatics to knock off Ocala Trinity Catholic in Monday night’s state semifinal.
But none of that mattered as the cameras clicked with that runner-up trophy.
That’s because what made the loss sting that much more was the fact that the Spartans were rolling with momentum. They had rallied from a 5-2 deficit to tie the game in the last of the fifth on a towering two-out, three run homer by Brandon Gomez over the “green monster” left field wall.
Luis Deville, who entered in the fourth to relieve starter Alex Perez on the mound was rolling as he mowed down eight straight Crusader batters through the seventh. And then came the last of the seventh.
After the Spartans put runners on first and second with only one out and, with their two best hitters in David Palenzuela and Gomez due up, a stunning upset and state title appeared to be within reach.
But that’s when Crusaders pitcher Cooper Jones, a complete game winner the day before in the semifinals who entered in the fifth inning in relief, bore down and struck out both batters, getting Palenzuela swinging and Gomez looking on a 1-2 outside fast ball to send the game to extra innings.
“[Jones] just made a great pitch in a big moment so you have to give him credit,” said Gomez. “Just an outside fastball that was right where it had to be. I’m still proud of what we not only got done out there tonight but what we accomplished all season. I would got to war with any of these guys (pointing to dejected Pace dugout) over there. I love them all.”