TAMPA — Scott Hoffman found Tucker Neuhaus sitting in their empty clubhouse, head down, shoulders slumped and mind clearly somewhere else.
The game had long been over and Neuhaus was nursing a strained right quadriceps, yet another defeat and disappointment for Wharton in a season already heavy on both.
At that moment, both of them knew, it would have been difficult for Neuhaus’ senior year to get much worse.
“I went over and hugged him and told him that I loved him,” Hoffman said. “I could tell that he was hurt and confused. I wish he didn’t have to go through all of that.”
Time, and a few improbable victories in last week’s district tournament, has helped with the healing process.
Now Neuhaus is healthy again and the Wildcats are still alive in the playoffs, giving them all another chance to have the season they expected at the start of the year.
“I really thought I was done with high school ball,” Neuhaus said. “But it’s all part of God’s perfect timing.”
Wharton, which went 0-10 in District 8A-7 in the regular season, faces East Lake in a Class 8A region quarterfinal Wednesday night. The Wildcats (12-14) earned that playoff berth by pulling off upsets of the second- (Alonso) and third-seeded (Newsome) teams in the district tournament.
That timely surge gave Wharton enough time to welcome back Neuhaus and junior right-hander Tristan DeLuna, who was expected to be the ace of the staff until injuries limited him to only 18 innings.
“I felt like this season was personally my fault,” said DeLuna, who threw a complete game in a quarterfinal win over Newsome. “But as long as my arm is good, I feel like I can put some outs together and win a ball game.”
If DeLuna and Wharton can build on their late-season momentum, Neuhaus will have at least a couple more opportunities to redeem a senior year Hoffman calls the worst he has ever seen for a player of his caliber.
Coming into the season, Neuhaus was touted as one of the state’s top players and a potential early-round pick in the MLB draft in June.
A Louisville signee and son of a former college and high school baseball coach, Neuhaus had the physique (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), production (.329, six home runs), athleticism (plays regularly at shortstop) and pedigree of a major-league prospect.
He confirmed that with an impressive performance at the Florida Diamond Club in October, a showcase event organized by the Florida Scouts Association. He hit a homer and a double in the game and followed up with another rousing display in batting practice.
“It was the shot heard ’round the draft,” said Ken Neuhaus, his father and a former Freedom High coach. “All scouts need to do is see that once and they know more is there.”
It was a triumphant moment, and one of the last Tucker Neuhaus would have for quite a while.
A month later, older brother Tyler Neuhaus, a sophomore catcher at Hillsborough Community College, was killed in a single-car accident near the Hillsborough-Pasco county border. He was 19.
The loss lingered over the family, which had gotten used to having Tyler Neuhaus back home after he spent a year at Yavapai Community College in Arizona.
The Neuhaus brothers had been sharing a bedroom — one that fit two queen beds and not much else — and had grown closer over the previous few months. After a childhood that was more rivalry than brotherly, the boys became peers and even friends.
“Now that we look back at it, it was the best thing that could have happened,” said Karen Neuhaus, their mother. “The forced togetherness was good for them.”
Tucker Neuhaus poured his focus into the weight room and batting cage, planning to honor the memory of his brother with a huge season. He even asked DeLuna if he could wear his No. 19 jersey, the same one — literally — once worn by Tyler.
Once the season started, the spiral only continued.
In the fourth game of the season against Alonso, Neuhaus was suffering from the flu and had to be removed midway through the game.
The next day, in a game at Riverview, Neuhaus was fielding a ball that took an awkward hop and hit him in the head, perforating his eardrum.
He was limited over the next couple of games until he tweaked his quadriceps against Gaither on March 7, a game that had at least several dozen major-league scouts in attendance.
Neuhaus watched much of the game from the dugout. Later, Hoffman found the forlorn Neuhaus sitting in a clubhouse that had long since emptied.
“I felt kind of down at that moment,” he said. “I finally thought I was back and then that happened. It was disappointing.”
The quadriceps injury kept Neuhaus out for much of the rest of the season, as he reinjured it during the rehab process. His high school career seemed over, bound for an unceremonious end.
Then Wharton managed to put together a pair of wins in the district tournament, clinching a spot in the regionals.
“We finally figured it out,” Hoffman said. “It’s funny how it worked out that way.”