FORT MYERS — East Lake's spectacular run through the Class 7A postseason finished up just shy of reaching its ultimate goal.
About 24 hours after winning a record-tying, 13-inning marathon over Kissimmee Osceola in the semifinals, the Eagles fell 5-2 to Hialeah American on Saturday night at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
“I've got to give them credit,” East Lake coach Dan Genna said of American. “They came and swung the bat and it was the one big inning. In high school baseball, 80 percent of the time the team with the big inning is probably going to win it.”
That game-changing frame came in the fourth against Eagles starter Ryan Wall. The junior righty had yet to give up a hit entering the inning, but couldn't get through American's potent lineup unscathed a second time.
East Lake appeared to catch a break prior to the Patriots' surge when senior shortstop Keegan Maronpot scooped an Eric Gonzalez grounder and forced Kevin Williams out at third for the first out. Williams got to second to lead off the inning after an error on his shallow liner in right field. But with Eric Gonzalez now at second after a stolen base, American cleanup hitter Roman Gonzalez ripped an RBI double into the left-field corner. Steven Alvarez followed with a run-scoring single – the lone earned run of the inning – to put American up 2-0.
One out and three batters later, Jake Norman delivered a two-run double that boosted the Patriots' lead to 4-0 and ended Wall's night. Senior Riley Choate came on in relief to record the third out.
“We thought Ryan Wall would be a good matchup because they're great, strong hitters and with the big park and the wind blowing in, we thought we'd get some long fly-ball outs,” Genna said of going with his reliable junior.
American gave the ball to right-handed starter Alejandro Blanco and the senior sidearmer proved to be a tough matchup. Over 5 2/3 innings, Blanco gave up just three hits – all to left-handed Ian Lisle.
“For a lefty it wasn't that bad because he was throwing it in a little bit and he was missing his spots on me for some reason,” Lisle said. “But he was sidearm so that made it a little bit tougher.”
Blanco quickly dispatched East Lake 1-2-3 in the fifth and the Patriots padded their seemingly insurmountable lead to 5-0 in the home half with Roman Gonzalez's second RBI of the night.
Despite the odds, the Eagles refused to go down without a fight.
Sophomore Christian James led off the sixth getting hit by a pitch, Andrew Prozzillo bunted him to second and Blanco beaned Brad Deppermann to give the Eagles runners and first and second with one out for Lisle. The lineup's hottest bat responded with an RBI single to the right side that rolled just out of the reach of second baseman Eric Gonzalez. An errant throw to the plate allowed both runners to advance into scoring position and Deppermann then raced home on a wild pitch to cut the deficit to 5-2.
But with Lisle on third and just one out, Blanco recovered by striking out Maronpot. Closer Andy Figueroa took over with two down and ended the rally by popping up Nick DeSantis to first base.
The Eagles gave it another go in the seventh, putting Sawyer Wirth (walk) at second and Cameron Churchill (base hit) at first with one out, but Figueroa shut the door for his ninth and final save of the season.
“I honestly thought we had a good chance and when we started rolling again I thought we were going to come back like we did all season,” Lisle said.
Churchill started the game at first base and then tossed East Lake's final two innings, allowing one run on 2 hits while striking out three.
“I thought we had a chance,” Maronpot said of the Eagles' late-game effort. “We always have a chance. They're just a good team.”
“We fought back and the kids showed great character like that all year,” Genna said. “[American's] a high-quality team and I'm honored to be here. It was a great experience for the kids and we just came up one inning short.
“We're definitely not disappointed at all. We laid it all out there.”
Both programs entered Saturday night's final having never won a state title. East Lake finished as the Class 5A state runner-up in 2002 and American placed second in Class 6A in 2010.
The last Pinellas County team to return home with a state championship was the 2008 Dunedin Falcons. A victory Saturday would have been Pinellas County baseball's 13th overall and made East Lake the eighth program with one of those trophies. The Tampa Bay area's last state baseball champion was the 2011 Class 8A Alonso High team led by Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez.
This year's Eagles roster featured eight of the most-decorated seniors in program history, Genna said. Churchill, Maronpot and Prozzillo are four-year varsity contributors and finish their careers with a state runner-up finish, three district titles, two Pinellas County Athletic Conference championships and two Lee Byers Invitational championships.
“The trophy case is huge for those three guys,” Genna said. “[This is a] spectacular group of eight seniors that fought their butts off. This has definitely been the best four years for East Lake baseball with what we've accomplished. I'm extremely proud of these seniors. They really sold out for their teammates.”
“Obviously it's tough for me to say that it's really awesome right now, but it's been a good year and a good career here,” said Maronpot, one of the county's top players and headed to Wake Forest University this fall. “I wouldn't want to spend it with anybody else. They're my brothers.”
EL - 000 002 0 --- 2-4-2
AHS - 000 410 x --- 5-5-1
WP – Alejandro Blanco (6-0)
LP – Ryan Wall (5-2)
S – Andy Figueroa (9)