By: Robbie Centracchio – May 2011
-St. James Baseball: A Champion’s Tribute-
Every high school coach reaches closure on a season by looking back and looking forward at the same time. Who are we losing, who is coming back, what did we accomplish, and what could I have done differently? So how do you look back and summarize a fifteen week journey that ends in a AAA State Championship? That’s easy, with a thankful smile.
After two successful runs to the lower state, our school received an initial invite to the IP Classic. The week before the IPC, our seven senior college signees were celebrated in a signing ceremony at St James. The ceremony was emotional and each of the seniors (Tanner English, Gunnar Heidt, Anthony Cossentino, Robert Troiano, Roddy Cross, Carl Buddin and Gunnar Kines) deserved the recognition they received. At the same time it ignited a media frenzy that, at times, was distracting and also developed a huge bullseye on our backs.
The excitement carried over into the IP Classic where we battled fellow pre-season favorites Brookland-Cayce and BHP. We trailed in both games before making dramatic comebacks, one by the way of a Gunnar Heidt (left) homerun (Gunnar hit three homeruns in the tourney despite going 0-fer in the home run derby).
We became the first "local team" to win the prestigious tourney defeating a very good Blythewood team in the finals. We left Georgetown with confidence having met our first team goal, and also aware that each of the previous AAA winners had gone on to win the state championship. A special thanks to the Mike and Alicia Johnson for putting on an elite, first class tournament and to the Ward family for taking care of us during our stay.
First home game and the scouts are awaiting our batting practice at 3:15, thank you Mr. Tanner English. A steady theme for the rest of the season is that each and every moment at Shark Park would be captured by some MLB affiliated scout.
The first part of our region schedule starts off with a bang and we are rolling right along until we run into a Myrtle Beach team, headed by Alex Roberts, on a mission. We end up losing two region games and needed Myrtle Beach to beat Georgetown in the end to claim our second, consecutive region crown. Not exactly how we intended to end the region season, but we had to fight (and get some help) in order to reach our second team goal (Region Champs), a consistent theme in our season.
A late spring break meant that we would participate in the Mingo Bay Classic the week before the playoffs started. After winning the tourney in 2009 we finished second last season to eventual Virginia state champs South County. We made it to the finals where we defeated an up-and-coming Carolina Forest team in the pouring rain. The game was highlighted by back-to- back jacks by Heidt and Robert Troiano (each hit two in the game). What a way to enter the playoffs, three goals set and three goals accomplished.
We matched up with Brookland-Cayce, Midland Valley and Myrtle Beach, quite a district with the #4 seed having been pre-season #1 in the state. We dropped game one at home, and I have to tell you that Michael Gilroy is, by far, the best pitcher we faced in three years at St James. We now faced the task of winning four straight games in five days, or planning our end of year banquet. Two clutch pitching performances by Gunnar Kines and Preston Lane led us toward a return trip to historic BC.
The task of defeating them twice, including defeating a well-rested Mr. Gilroy, was what we faced. We won the first game behind Gunnar Kines pitching on three day’s rest. The game was also highlighted by bombs from Heidt and Chase Shelton (one of the best sticks we faced, ps. Sorry for all the changeups Chase).
The nightcap was a re-match of game one starter’s Anthony Cossentino and Gilroy, and what a battle it was. Tanner English (right) led off the game with a solo homerun and, in the second inning, made the best high school catch I have ever seen. Going back on a Zach Sightler drive, he left his feet crashing head first into a bar on the outfield fence in centerfield. I remember going out to see how he was and seeing the imprint of the black fence pole on his hat, what a player! He left the game and controversially was not allowed to return. As fate would have it, his replacement, Hugh Benton, would come to bat in the last inning with the tying run at 3rd base, two outs, and two strikes. Hugh fought off a couple of tough Gilroy pitches before blooping a single that saved our season.
An already tearful Anthony Cossentino followed Benton with the game winning hit and pandemonium would follow. What a clutch performance by Cossentino battling for the "W" with Gilroy and having six hits in the double-header. Our fourth team goal to three-peat as district champs had been our toughest challenge. What a rivalry we started with BC, each of us ending the others season the past three years. We played each other seven times in three years, and ended up on the winning side five times.
Our senior’s third trip to lower state felt different following the struggle it took to get there. Using momentum, we beat Hilton Head and snuck by Player Loving and AC Flora to reach the lower state finals.
What an experience playing at AC Flora and opposite Andy Hallett. You read about program and coaches online, but to meet them, compete with them, and see how they run their programs is special. We faced them again in the finals at St. James before a record Murrells Inlet crowd, needing one win to play for it all.
We were shut out in game one by Player Loving and would have to rely on a second three-day rest start by Gunnar Kines (right). With only twenty minutes before game two’s start, our team decided to take an imaginary team bus ride in our lucky, undefeated bus A73-10. That’s right I said imaginary. I was summoned off of the Sandpro to drive the imaginary bus full of laughing players around the outfield. The ploy might have had fans scratching their heads, but made perfect sense to a superstitious group of Sharks who were undefeated on that bus.
Gunnar Kines shut out the Falcons, Tanner English hit an insurance jack, and the superstition lived on as we met goal number five (lower state champs) and headed to our first-ever State Championship Series versus Union County.
We left Murrells Inlet for Game One of the Championship Series to 1,300 cheering students, what an unbelievably supportive student and faculty we have at St James. We fell behind 4-2 before the rains opened up in the sixth. With no chance to take the field within two hours, we took the rain-shortened loss in the opener. Although disappointed in not being able to finish the game, our focus turned quickly to the task of winning at home. (Note: we chartered a bus to Union County so the undefeated streak of bus A73-10 was still in tack).
Game Two brought a crowd and atmosphere of excitement to the Inlet that had never been there before. I still get goose-bumps remembering the crowd that surrounded our baseball facility. Gunnar Kines gave up a lead-off homerun but settled in and kept us close trailing 3-1 going into the fifth inning. Tanner English highlighted a seven-run fifth with a three-run blast and Kines sealed the deal as we won 10-3.
Game Three would be Saturday at Riley Park in Sumter.
A very rare experience of knowing that Friday would be the senior’s last practice as a Shark and winning their last game at St. James was a well-deserved gift for this special senior class. A charter bus to Sumter was offered and soundly declined and good old A73-10 rumbled up to Sumter!
As irony would have it, we stopped for breakfast in Georgetown where our journey began in the IP. Anthony Cossentino, who has started more games in St. James history, got the nod and threw one ground ball out after another. Nerves struck in the second inning and we made four errors, that’s right, four in one inning of a State Championship game. Trailing 2-0, we answered in the bottom of the inning with four straight hits from our #6-9 hitters and took the lead 3-2.
The inning was highlighted by a Roddy Cross, lead-off bomb. Roddy and Anthony were both playing their last high school games on the field they would play on in college, pretty neat. The way we answered the four error inning epitomized our season’s approach of staying even-keeled, avoiding getting too high and too low, and believing in the final, seven inning result.
We added an insurance run later on a Preston Lane sac fly (Gunnar Heidt tagged from second and scored. What an amazing combination he is of talent, hustle, baseball IQ, and straight clutch). Entering the seventh with a two-run lead we turn to Kines on two days rest with one out and a runner at first. Door slammed. St James wins! What a senior season Kines had (11-0 3 saves, 5-0 with 2 saves in the playoffs).
Every player and coach visualizes what it would be like to win a championship, what you would do and what you would remember about the day. I remember sharing tears of joy and endless embraces with players and coaches. I also remember dog-piling with my wife Angie and five children (you can dog-pile with a family of seven) and thanking God for blessing me with a moment that many never get to experience.
Goal number six (Win a State Championship) comes with a big ring and smile that hasn’t went away yet. I’d like to thank my players and fellow baseball coaches at St. James for believing in our fifteen week journey. I can’t wait to share the reward with you guys in week number 30. When is the first home football game again?
DP Note: Diamond Prospects congratulates the 2011 St. James Sharks on their 3A title. We also appreciate the time that Head Coach Robbie Centracchio took to chronicle their championship march!