When Estero lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to eventual Class 5A state baseball champion Plantation American Heritage in the regional finals last year, coach Frank Turco was crushed.
After losing in the regional finals for the fourth time, he wondered if the Wildcats would ever make it to state.
“More than you know it,” Turco said. “I thought, ‘Is it ever going to be in the cards for Estero, myself and these kids?’
“But you keep plugging away.”
This season, Turco took a step back. He let his assistants — pitching coach Troy Beall, as well as Shannon Rhodes, Mike Claman and Mike Matthews — coach more.
He didn’t panic when his young team — which lost five players to college baseball — had injuries and struggled to find its way early.
He overlooked some practices that weren’t as intense as he’d like. And the man who isn’t big on “rah, rah stuff,” watched with bemusement as his players constantly made noise from innings 1-7.
“We picked it up from a team we played earlier this season, a team from Miami,” shortstop Ryan Keegan said. “Like if the pitcher tries to pick off one of our guys, somebody will say, ‘No, no no,’ and the rest of us will say, ‘Not today.’ “
This group, which was 8-7 at one point and had lost four games by four or more runs, kept getting better. Pitchers Zeke Pietrzyk and Brian Boocock got healthy. Fielding improved. And the batters, never overwhelming, started coming up with clutch hits.
All these qualities came together Friday night when Estero qualified for the first state baseball appearance in school history when it stunned host American Heritage 3-2 in the Class 5A-4 Regional Finals. American Heritage — a prep baseball powerhouse — had been ranked No. 4 by Baseball America and No. 8 in the Excellent 25 by Max Preps.
Pietrzyk, who before the game tweeted, “Lets shock the country tomorrow,” pitched a masterful game while his catcher, Jason Moore, got the Wildcats going with a two-run single in the first inning.
“You know, I had so many people who told me we were gonna win,” Turco said. “It was eerie. They said, ‘This is our year, this is our year, why can’t it be us? Why can’t we Cinderella?’
“Zeke’s dad told me, ‘I can see this happening and this and this.’ I asked him, ‘You’re not tipping the bottle, are you?’ But give the guy credit. He was right.
“With how we played early in the season, we had no business being there. But guys started to believe.”
Turco said his players were so loose Friday that a person couldn’t tell they were playing in the biggest game in their lives. Pietrzyk, who overcame an early season elbow injury, said he and his teammates “had a lot of the pressure off our shoulders.”
“If we did lose, it was expected,” he said. “If we won, it almost was like a miracle. And (American Heritage) went into the game a little cocky.”
While talking with Beall on the drive to Plantation, Pietrzyk felt if he could get ahead in the count and limit walks, he could take advantage of the free-swinging Patriots. He finished with one walk and 10 strikeouts.
“I had a lot of 0-2 counts and I worked those effectively,” the junior lefty said. “I think I had their timing off. I worked pretty fast. When they stepped in the box, the next thing they knew, the pitch was coming.”
Turco didn’t talk to Pietrzyk the entire game. Neither did teammates “when they saw that look into deep space,” he said.
Focused on his routine, he told a teammate to “put it back” when he brought Pietrzyk his cap and glove between innings.
“I think he got scared,” Pietrzyk said.
Verbally committed to FGCU, Pietrzyk simply forgot about the seventh-inning homer he gave up to make it 3-2.
“I knew the homer was off a mistake pitch,” he said. “I left a fastball up. I just needed to keep my pitches low.”
When Turco asked Beall if he should warm up Boocock, Beall said, “No, Zeke is finishing.
“It was a masterful performance.”
Turco said he received 31 text messages after the game. Parents of past players still attend games. He expects a big contingent to back the Wildcats, who are essentially playing in their backyard. It’s just a 12-mile drive to JetBlue Park.
Estero won’t play until May 22, but the coach said there’s plenty to work on.
“Oh my gosh, this really is a surprise,” Turco said. “This team is young and inexperienced and green and any other word you can come up with. They’re still trying to figure out the game and how mentally tough it is. But it shows you with these kids, what can happen when the lights come on.”
FHSAA State Baseball Tournament
Bishop Verot’s and Estero’s baseball teams have lengthy breaks before their state tournament games at JetBlue Park. Bishop Verot won’t play until Monday, May 20, when it’ll face Pensacola Catholic at 4 p.m. in a Class 4A state semifinal. Estero won’t play until Wednesday, May 22, when it’ll take on St. Johns Creekside in a Class 5A state semifinal at 4 p.m.
At JetBlue Park
10 a.m.: Deltona Trinity Christian vs. Vero Beach The Master’s Academy
1 p.m.: Tampa Cambridge vs. Miami Westwood Christian
4 p.m.: Panama City Bozeman vs. Chiefland
7:30 p.m.: Bonifay Holmes County vs. Trenton
4 p.m.: 1A championship
7:30 p.m.: 2A championship
10 a.m.: Plant City Durant vs. Hialeah American
1 p.m.: Lake Brantley vs. Jupiter
4 p.m.: Haines City vs. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas
7:30 p.m.: Tallahassee Chiles vs. Venice
4 p.m.: 7A state championship
7:30 p.m.: 8A state championship
Monday, May 20 games
10 a.m.: Jacksonville Providence vs. Clearwater Central Catholic
1 p.m.: Melbourne Central Catholic vs. Miami Florida Christian
4 p.m.: Pensacola Catholic vs. Bishop Verot
7:30 p.m.: Ocala Trinity Catholic vs. Miami Monsignor Pace
Tuesday, May 21 games
4 p.m.: 3A championship
7:30 p.m.: 4A championship
Wednesday, May 22 games
10 a.m.: Orlando Edgewater vs. Southwest Ranches Archbishop McCarthy
1 p.m.: Lynn Haven Mosley vs. Tampa King
4 p.m.: St. Johns Creekside vs. Estero
7:30 p.m.: Ponte Vedra vs. Tampa Jesuit
Thursday, May 23 games
4 p.m.: 5A championship
7:30 p.m.: 6A championship