FORT MYERS — So, this is gonna be the team, Richie Warren?
Not the team ranked No. 2 in the country, with the USA Today film crew in tow, or the one with a roster full of Division I signees, or the one with the million-dollar arm or the golden glove or the super-charged bat?
Sophomore ace. Reliever turned championship game starter. Half the roster deleted midway through the season.
Sophomore leadoff hitter, sophomore No. 2 hitter, the sophomore that was a key defensive replacement, the sophomore that was the primary pinch runner.
Or, as they were all known at the beginning the season: The Bench.
Well, bravo then, Richie Warren.
• • •
Jesuit won a rather improbable state championship Thursday evening, beating Green Cove Springs Clay 5-2 and giving Warren his first title as a coach after a handful of heartbreaking failures.
How did the Tigers do it?
By deciding to. The day Warren gathered his remaining Tigers and the ones he called up from junior varsity, he said the goal remained the same.
“At first we were kind of shell-shocked,” senior Ryan McCullers said. “He made us realize that no matter what happens in life, you get back up and you fight even harder.”
So they fought. Harder.
And Warren comforted his new team. He cajoled. He coached. All things Warren does quite well.
Beleaguered these past few years for not doing enough with so much, Warren did so much with what most would have assumed was not enough.
“What can you say, they gave me everything they had,” he said.
If you questioned his coaching acumen before, you probably feel pretty silly today. In his finest job as a coach, he coached a green lineup into something worthy of wearing blue.
And afterward, he talked of guys like Nick Ortega and Steven Lugo and Adam Weekley and Kasey Radke and Michael Sandborn not as mere replacements, but as stars.
“I wouldn’t sell these guys short,” Warren said. “They deserve this as much as anyone else. We don’t have nine Division I players, the USA team, the first-round pick, the All-Americans, but we had 20 guys that frigging battled their (expletive) off.”
Warren knows a little something about unlikely champions. Lost in Jesuit’s trophy case is a 2000 team that may have been just as unlikely, though without the midseason upheaval.
That team was 10-12 at one point, batted .261, lost 13 games and threw a kid in the state semifinal who had a losing record.
His name was Richie Warren, and he was followed by David Bartelt, who won the final over Bishop Kenny — No. 2 in the country at the time — with blisters on his hand.
“I’m really excited they get the chance to experience what I did as a player,” Warren said. “It’s just as sweet as a coach.”
The Tigers scratched out wins and played like a team of seniors, even if only McCullers, Radke and Danny Lastra were.
Thursday, they scored two runs in the first inning on three hits that never left the infield.
After losing a 2-0 lead, they retook it on McCullers’ near-homer high off the green monster net in left, scoring Kennie Taylor.
And in the seventh, Ortega surprised everyone by stealing second without a throw, then scored an insurance run on Lugo’s hit.
“The ball seemed to bounce our way,” Warren said. “Someone or something was looking out for us.”
Finally, Warren had the title he had wanted so badly for his players, for the program that has been such a big part of his life, and for the school he loves.
He raised his fists when they gave him his gold medal, and smiled.