The Cougars lost to Spruce Creek, 1-0, in eight innings on Friday morning.
The Durant Cougars’ third-ever baseball Final Four appearance started and ended with Friday morning’s 1-0 loss to the Spruce Creek Hawks.
Playing in front of an audience largely in their favor, the Cougars found themselves locked in a defensive battle with the Hawks that needed extra innings for a resolution. It was Spruce Creek that finally cracked the code in the eighth inning with a Dalton Hurst RBI double.
“We performed very well today,” Aidan Welsh said. “It’s just like Coach (Butch Valdes) says, he who makes the fewest mistakes is going to win. We tried to back (Sean) Hermann up with defense. We just didn’t have the bats today.”
Durant starter Sean Hermann and the Cougars defense escaped a jam in the fifth inning with one out and Spruce Creek runners at first and second. After Luke Bentley was hit by a pitch and Sebastian Iguaran reached base on a single, Hermann got his groove back by striking out Hurst looking and inducing an Evan Mastromauro pop flyout.
Though Durant put a fearsome trio of Austin Sewell (three walk-off scores in 2021), Javy Quintana and Dylan LaPointe (game-winning home run in the regional championship game) in the batter’s box in the bottom of the seventh, Spruce Creek’s Brandon Neely sent the game to extras getting Sewell to fly out to right field and striking out Quintana and LaPointe.
Hermann, who struck out nine batters through 7.1 innings, reached his pitch count after striking Trent Godawa out in the top of the eighth inning. He finished a stellar senior season with 135 strikeouts.
“It’s baseball,” Hermann said. “You can’t win every game. It sucks, it’s tough. When I watched my brother play here… kids have dreams of playing in MLB, I have dreams… it’s tough. You’ve just got to battle for the team. It’s a team game. I feel like when I’m on the mound, the whole team’s on the mound and it’s up to me. I’ve just got to grind for my team.”
“He wants to win for the team — it’s never been about him,” head coach Butch Valdes said. “It’s always been about the team. I wish we could have produced the runs… it hurts me more than anything that we couldn’t grab the runs for him.”
Alex Canney entered the game in relief and got Mastromauro out, but the Hawks then found a way to string together some offense. Corey Robinson singled and then stole second base to set up Hurst’s big extra-base hit and take the 1-0 lead. Preston Wetherell and Neely loaded the bases with an intentional walk and an HBP, respectively. Canney got out of the jam with Chase Dunlap’s flyout to end the half-inning.
With the game on the line, Oscar Fernandez created a spark when he hit a double to center field with one out and Devin Suero came in as a pinch runner. But Neely got both Brett Martin and Thomas Allen to strike out swinging to seal the win and send the Cougars back home.
“We knew that Neely was going to deal,” Valdes said. “We knew he was going to be tough. We knew we were going to have to play small ball… we didn’t execute. We had a couple of opportunities and just did not perform well. We’ve said it all year: ‘he who makes the fewest mistakes is going to win this game.’”
With the loss, Durant finished the 2021 season with a 22-6 record. Though the Cougars weren’t able to send their 14 seniors off with a state championship win, they still put together a season anyone could be proud of and got almost as far as any team can go.
“This whole group, it was a complete team effort,” Valdes said. “Losing Alex Canney, somebody’s got to step up. You saw our lineup today. Our first hit of the game was a freshman (Carlos Morales) in the lineup. That tells you, right there, that this was a special group all the way around from seniors to freshmen. They took care of each other and that was huge.”