ishop England could finally relax by the end of the fifth hour, well-deserved reprieve from the evening’s labyrinth of emotions.
The night began with excitement that eventually turned to anxiety before melting into disappointment. Frustration grew to trepidation that could’ve easily derailed the young Bishops. It motivated them instead. They were rallying before long. And they were celebrating soon after.
Bishop England outlasted Strom Thurmond in the Class AAA Lower State championship round Wednesday at Father Kelly Field on Daniel Island.
The two-time defending state champion Bishops needed just one win to advance to the state championship series. It took two games, 14 innings, 84 outs and nearly all of five hours to get it, but by the end it was worth the journey for a team that has learned to appreciate the process this season.
“We have to do it the hard way,” Bishop England coach Mike Darnell said. “This team has been like that all year. But it’s helped us mature a lot. Doing things the hard way is probably the reason we were comfortable enough to win in a situation like this tonight. These guys have grown up a lot over the season and it shows.”
It’s not yet 5 p.m. meaning the people tailgating with the shrimp salad in the parking lot must’ve checked out of work early to catch this evening's ballgame.
The mood throughout the home side of the park is light, both in the stands and on the field. The sun hangs high and clear overhead, sneaking under brims of ball caps and piercing through sunglasses. The stadium speakers seem to be blaring a little louder than usual. The squealing bagpipes of Dropkick Murphys begins to play, sending the Bishops into a mini mosh pit in the moments before first pitch.
Bishops right-hander Daniel Brooks receives the start on the mound for the first and what very well could be the only game of the day. The 6-foot-6 sophomore is solid throughout all seven innings, scattering six hits with three strikeouts and often working himself out of jams. Two outs into the second inning, though, the Bishops commit a pair of infield errors in consecutive at-bats, both resulting in unearned runs for Strom Thurmond.
“Brooks threw as well as he possibly could have,” Darnell said. “We just couldn’t help him with any support.”
Bishop England averaged nearly eight runs per game through the first five rounds of the postseason. But an hour into the first game and the Bishops still haven’t scored. The early energy has faded. Players continuously call out for some sort of rally that never arrives. Wasted opportunities lead to tossed batting gloves and helmets are slammed over and over again before coaches intervene.
Darnell calls a team meeting in the dugout ahead of the sixth inning. He urges his players to shift their energy and attitudes. If not for this game then to get a head start on the next, he explains.
Someone needs to set the example for a lineup that’s more than half made up of juniors and underclassmen. All-state senior Geoffrey Gilbert embraces the responsibility in his next at-bat. He gets out ahead of a pitch and sends it down the first-base line. It’s stopped by the first baseman but Gilbert beats him to the bag with a headfirst slide. He then advances to second on a shallow hit ground ball and, when an errant throw to pick him off rolls to the fence, he circles the bases to score the Bishops’ lone run. It’s inspiring, but not quite enough to avoid a 2-1 loss in the evening's opener.
“All year (senior third baseman) Chris (Dengler) and I have tried to help build this team for the future,” said Gilbert, who has the words ‘For the program, not for me’ written inside his hat. “We want to leave the program in a good position by helping lead these guys and helping teach these guys how to win while we’re still here. That’s just as important to me as anything else.”
Bishops assistant coach Bill Collier is succinct as he whispers into his cell phone.
“We lost,” he leaves in a voicemail. “We have to play again right now. It’s going to be a late night.”
He hangs up the phone and begins directing his players on how to prepare the field for the second game. Darnell is already combing the infield dirt on a small green tractor for the second time today, about three hours since he did it the first time. A Bishop England security guard leans against the fence fighting off a bee that's circling around him as he chews on a Snickers bar.
“We’re going to play another game right now?” he asks in astonishment before taking another bite. “All this baseball will make you hungry.”
Gilbert is off somewhere deep into left field preparing his arm to pitch. He transitions from long toss in the outfield to warm-up throws in the bullpen. A young girl stands outside the bullpen door just a few feet away from Gilbert watching each throw in awe. The left-handed Clemson signee is 24-0 over the past three years but by now Strom Thurmond has grown confident enough to speak boldly of the top-rated pitcher in the state.
“I don’t see how this guy is 24-0,” a Rebels assistant coach says aloud from his lawn chair inside the dugout. “We’ve seen a lot faster than that.”
“He’s not throwing that fast,” a player confirms nearby.
“We’re going to hit today, men,” another coach assures the Rebels. “We’re going to hit.”
Strom Thurmond didn’t find its first hit until the fourth inning. The Rebels only finished with two in all and the second one could’ve well been considered an error instead of a hit. Gilbert struck out eight batters through 5 ⅓ innings and walked just one.
It was a dominant outing with the season on the line, though imperfect to the toughest critic. A slight lapse in judgment on a misguided pitch sends Darnell into a tirade that continues as Gilbert makes his way from the field into the dugout between frames. The two spar back and forth in some sort of family feud before one final barb sends them both and everyone around them into roaring laughter. Four straight hours of baseball seems to be taking its toll on everyone's sanity.
Darnell can be admittedly hard on his players at times, especially Gilbert who he considers the best pitcher he’s ever coached. The tough love has its purpose, though, and the results can be seen annually, especially this year in the way the Bishops' youth has quickly molded from unknowns into championships contenders. Gilbert has seen this play out before and has grown to appreciate Darnell’s methods.
“When my career here is over I want him to look at me and be proud of the job he’s done,” Gilbert said of Darnell. “He’s been like a father to me for a third of my life and I hope one day he looks back and knows he did a good job of raising me as a baseball player and more importantly as a person. If that means he’s hard on me now, I’ll take that.”
Bishop England needs Gilbert’s gem for a large portion of the game. Brooks scores Corey Cochran with a sacrifice fly in the top of the first inning. The Bishops don't score again until the sixth inning. Still, the Bishops dugout buzzes with a different sort of energy most of the second game. Gilbert’s presence on the mound seems to elicit a different sort of confidence.
The sun has set a few innings into the second game and florescent lights are now attracting more gnats than the expired cans of bug spray can repel. Junior varsity players provide charming zeal mixed in beside their older brethren against the dugout fence. Several former Bishops funnel in and out throughout the game too. They bring stories of their own championship rings, adding some of their own motivation but mostly just uninhibited comedic relief.
“Geoff is in his bag right now,” 2018 graduate Robert Yanchik assures multiple times throughout the night to be sure he’s heard. Darnell maybe explains Gilbert’s impact more eloquently.
“We’re a different team when Geoffrey pitches,” he said. “We’re a much more confident club when Geoffrey is on the mound. We figure one run, with him pitching, that could be enough to win but a few more can’t hurt.”
The Bishops put the game out of reach late, scoring five runs in the sixth inning and five more in the seventh. Cochran, Brooks and Gilbert each finish with two RBIs. Adam Salmorin relieves Gilbert in the sixth inning and preserves the 11-0 shutout.
The immediate celebration following the final out is subdued. The players have been conditioned to expect more than a Lower State championship. The celebration must wait until the final prize is captured, though they do find a way to let loose a little, pretending to joust while riding on each other’s shoulders and tipping over as human pins in a makeshift bowling game.
Bishop England will travel to Upper State champion Crescent for the opening game of the best-of-three state championship series on Saturday before hosting the second game on Tuesday. The third game, if necessary, would be played on a neutral site the following Saturday.
Should the Bishops win a third straight championship, the evening they conquered a five-hour, two-game marathon to get there would become the stuff of legend. Even if they don’t, though, nights like this — the emotion, the minutiae, the memories — will surely sustain them long after they take their final swings.
Oceanside advanced to the Class AA state championshiop with a 13-0 five-inning shutout of Gray Wednesday in Mount Pleasant.
Landsharks junior right-hander Cooper Gaskins went all five innings without allowing a hit, just two walks with four strikeouts.
Jack Mahoney led Oceanside with three RBIs, while Aidan Pourmoghadam, Gray Sobel and Brandon Schultz each drove in two runs.
Oceanside will travel to Upper State champion Landrum for the first game of the AA title series on Monday before hosting the second game on Wednesday.