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Coral Springs Christian Falls 1-0 In State Semifinal

Crusaders starter Eric Hepple pitched a complete-game gem.

State Semifinal Photo Gallery

As Coral Springs Christian Manager Matt Cleveland lamented afterwards, sometimes in the game of baseball the hits just don’t fall.

The Crusaders had a great approach at the plate, they collected more hits then their opposition, they got fantastic pitching and they played outstanding defense. Despite all those things, the team still came up on the wrong end of a 1-0 decision to North Florida Christian in the Class 3A state semifinal played at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers Wednesday morning.

The Eagles (25-4) scored the lone run of the contest in the bottom of the second inning. JD Huggins lined a two-out single into the outfield and advanced to second base when the ball got past the fielder. Ethan Michaelis capitalized by smacking a 2-0 pitch up the middle for the RBI single that was all the difference.

The Crusaders (23-8) had some chances against Eagles left-handed starter Carson Sands, but were unable to get the one big hit that could have tied things up.

“That’s baseball,” said Cleveland. “Obviously we did make one mistake with two outs, but at the end of the day this is high school baseball. You have two high school teams playing and hitting the ball hard all over the place and you get one mistake. It’s hard to expect them to be absolutely perfect. I thought we hit the ball well. Their guy, to his credit, was in the zone and he didn’t give us anything. It’s hard to be perfect when a guy is throwing 90 to 92. I think we were pretty dang good.”

Sands went the distance on 85 pitches, scattering six hits and a walk while recording five strikeouts. Even with the talented southpaw throwing as well as he did on Wednesday, the Crusaders were undaunted and stayed within their game plan to put in solid at bats time and time again.

Chris Bec slides safely into third base in the fifth inning.

“I thought we only gave away two or three at bats the whole day, and I told my team if we’re going to lose let’s make a team beat us at our best,” Cleveland said. “We had to beat an arm just like him to get here. That day the hits fell and we got six runs. When it’s a one-game playoff anything can happen.”

Countering Sands’ great performance was the equally impressive pitching from Crusaders starter Eric Hepple. The right-hander also went the distance, pounding the strike zone on 39 of his 61 total pitches. Hepple scattered four hits and also hit three batters, striking out a pair and keeping his club right in the game all the way to the very end.

“I felt pretty good going into this game,” Hepple said. “Obviously in a state Final Four game it gets your adrenalin going, so in the bullpen I just tried to establish my changeup, away to lefties and back-door to righties. It’s my best pitch and I got a couple of rollovers. Then I was able to establish my fastball early; inside, outside, on both sides of the plate. I felt I was pretty good today.”

Coral Springs Christian also got a tremendous defensive effort, particularly from the outfield unit. Outfielders Pemron Burrows, Chris Bec and Joey DePalo excelled at chasing down many well-hit balls and making the catches look easy, limiting the Eagles’ baserunners to back their starter and give their squad a fighting chance to answer back.

“Pemron’s pretty fast, Chris Bec is fast and DePalo is fast, so pretty much anything in the air was caught,” Hepple said. “It was a bigger field, and some of those balls may go out in a normal high school field. The wind coming from center to home plate helped a little bit too. Anything that was hit their way was caught so it felt pretty good.”

The Crusaders got a great performance from their defense.

The Crusaders put guys on base in nearly every inning. Twice the team put the tying run within ninety feet of crossing the plate, but they were just unable to come up with that one big hit that could have written a better ending to the great season they delivered in 2014. James Buckley paced the offense by going 2-for-3.

“I’m just glad they didn’t score a run,” said Eagles Manager Mike Posey. “It was a good game for the fans.”

Many of those fans were in attendance in support of the Crusaders, who were making their first state tournament appearance in school history. With a veteran roster and several college and even Major League-level players on the club, the team delivered a memorable season that gave their program, their fans and their school more than enough reason to be proud. It was a defeat that came only because the team they faced played just as well as they did, and it was the only way a club was going to end the Crusaders remarkable run.

“It’s kind of tough right now, but I told the team I don’t coach just to win,” Cleveland said. “Obviously I want to win. But I want kids to grow up in our program and play baseball the right way and learn how to be successful at the next level. We only had three transfers, but they all needed to be here in this kind of program and learn what it takes to be successful. Like I said at the beginning, you’ve got to make a team beat you at your best. We didn’t lose this game; they won it. Really that’s the way I see it. Yes, I am very proud and we did accomplish a lot and we’ll get back to work when we get back for next year.”

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