Down to their final nine innings of high school baseball - that's right, this is it - it's little wonder that the 51 players on the North and South rosters of the Chautauqua County Senior All-Star Classic are just looking to have a little fun.
And what better place to do that than under the lights, on a finely-manicured, professional ballfield like Diethrick Park?
"It's a great way to end their high school careers," Coach Vince Gullo said after leading the North on Wednesday evening to its second victory in three years over the South, 14-10. "All of these boys are graduating, and I always say that high school baseball is the greatest sport to play. We all made new friends, and I got to know some of the kids that I've been following in the paper.
Brett Johnson of Frewsburg, left, and Andrew Messina of Dunkirk were chosen the most valuable players of the Chautauqua County Exceptional Senior All-Star baseball game, which was played Wednesday night at Diethrick Park in Jamestown. See additional photos at cu.post-journal.com.
P-J?photo by Rob Tucker
"All in all, it was a great event."
Now, each go about having that fun at this "great event" in their own way. Some tried out the good old wood bat (Maple Grove's Aaron Germain), some (actually, on Wednesday, a great many) gave swiping a bag a shot (not always with good results, however) and others tried a new position (like, for instance, usual Fredonia centerfielder Nick Hart playing a number of innings at shortstop while teammate Trent Thompson tried his hand in the outfield grass).
"They were trading positions a little bit," Gullo said with a laugh. "I gave them leeway if they felt confident because they're all super athletes. Us coaches put them in challenging positions all year, and this was just a good day to have fun."
Leading the way for the victors was Most Valuable Player Andrew Messina. The Dunkirk right-hander tossed the game's first three innings, surrendering just one run on one hit with three walks and four strikeouts.
"Drew got us off to a great start," Gullo said. "He finished the season strong for Dunkirk, and yeah, he's a good pitcher, so we couldn't go wrong with starting him."
Messina's lone hit surrendered, meanwhile, came courtesy of South MVP Brett Johnson, of Frewsburg, who belted a one-out double in the top of the first that scored teammate Bram Johnson (Jamestown) and gave the South a 1-0 advantage.
Johnson finished the game 1-for-2 with an RBI, a walk, a run scored and a pair of stolen bases. He also made a dazzling, over-the-shoulder snag in centerfield early in the contest.
"I think it was nice for Brett to win (the MVP award)," South coach Jay Grann said. "He went out there and showed he is one of the better players in the area and put it all on display, both hitting and fielding. He put together an all-around good performance tonight."
But while Johnson gave his home squad the early lead, the South wouldn't hold it for long, and, after letting it slip away, would never regain it.
The North scored two runs in the third to take the slim, one-run lead - after singling, Hart scored on a fielding error by South reliever Nick Tobias and then Thompson scored from third on a groundout by Fredonia teammate Zach Buckley - before, thanks to another four errors by South, pouring on 10 runs over the next two innings for a hefty, 12-1 advantage.
"We struggled a little bit defensively," Grann said, "but some of these guys hadn't played in a few weeks so I think it was just a matter of shaking the rust off a little bit."
Thompson, who drove in a pair of runs during the six-run fourth inning, would finish 2-for-4 with three runs scored and a team-high four RBIs while Buckley chipped in with a 2-for-3 performance with a run scored and three RBIs.
In all, the North, which held its advantage by tacking on runs in the eighth and ninth frames, collected 11 hits and drew 11 walks.
Undeterred by the deficit, though, the South clawed its way back into the contest, scoring four runs on three hits during the fifth inning against North pitcher Tyler Swanson of Pine Valley.
Panama's Sawyer Eggleston delivered the decisive hit in the frame when he drilled a two-out single up the middle that scored teammates Kyle McIntyre and Kyle Radack and cut the North advantage to 12-5.
The South would pull to within five runs, 12-7, after scoring two in the seventh, and then got as close as four when it scored two more in the bottom of the ninth. But any comeback hopes came to an abrupt end when North catcher Cameron Wright (Westfield) gunned out Tobias, who was trying to move over after a wild pitch, at third for the game's final out.
"That drops my record to 2-1 in senior all-star games," Grann finished with a smile. "But, above all, I think everybody had a good memory out there at some point tonight, and that's what it's really all about."