FAYETTEVILLE -- It was approaching midnight and the dew was heavy on the Whitewater baseball diamond.
This was not the way any of the seven seniors on Heritage's perennially successful baseball team envisioned the end of their high school playing days. It was an emotional team meeting in the middle of the infield as Coach Casey Teal spoke to each play individually.
There was a long hug with standout catcher Tyler Austin, the undisputed leader of a Patriot team that fought its way into the AAAA playoffs only to go out in the first round by losing both games Thursday to a confident Whitewater team.
Heritage saw early leads diminish against a relentless offensive attack from Whitewater in a 16-9 loss in the opener and a 9-6 loss in the second game. Heritage mounted comebacks to tie the score in the first game and take a slim two-run lead in the second.
"They battled all year and just never quit," Teal said with a slight quiver in his voice. "I have never been more proud of a group of players."
Teal, in his seventh year at the helm at Heritage, seemed philosophical in the wake of the disappointing finish.
"I told these players that I am confident they will be successful in life because they know how to get through tough times," Teal said. "We won eight of our last nine just to get to the playoffs and that says so much about them."
Receiving praise from Teal were seniors Austin, Ryan Cochran, Travis Tarleton, Nakeem Forte, Joseph Lester, Nick Woodward and Kyle Aaron. They were also honored with a banner behind the visitor's section on Thursday evening as a large contingent of Heritage students, parents and friends supported the team at Whitewater's baseball stadium.
Most of those seniors will continue to play in college next year, and Austin may even go straight to the pros. Teal said that Austin, Cochran, Tarleton and Lester started all four years and that the Patriots made the playoffs each of those years.
"There were a bunch of scouts here tonight," on Heritage parent said. "I think Tyler will get a chance to sign with someone pretty soon."
In the event he does not go straight to professional baseball, Austin has signed a scholarship offer to Kennesaw State University. Physically impressive with good strength and speed and a cannon for an arm, Austin is a consistent hitter who also exhibits poise and a keen understanding of the game.
One particular play early in the first game highlighted Austin's ability. Whitewater had the bases loaded with one out when Austin gunned down its runner on third base to get to two outs and runners on first and second. The Patriots got the next batter out and thus escaped giving up more runs that inning.
It was one of only a few defensive gems for Heritage in the two games. The Patriots suffered numerous dropped fly balls that extended the innings for Whitewater and perhaps had a demoralizing psychological effect on the pitcher, In fairness to the fielders, however, most of the fly balls were to the shallow parts of the outfield and presented difficult catch opportunities.
Not wanting to make excuses but again philosophical, Teal said, "It was one of those nights and I just told our kids that sometimes things just don't go your way, but there is a reason for it and we just have to accept it."
As the players began to sack up the equipment for the final time this season, Tarleton walked over to Austin and the two hugged one last time as Heritage players.
Not a word was spoken. Words were not necessary.