TAMPA — Tampa Catholic’s first two games against the nation’s No. 1 team went poorly: two losses by a combined 26 runs.
A third opportunity against the top-ranked team in the country ended in another defeat, but the Crusaders were heartened by their fortitude in a 3-1 loss.
“We’ve already seen the best of the best,” Crusaders coach Ty Griffin said of Jesuit and Pensacola Catholic, MaxPreps’ current No. 1 team. “So whatever we see from here, it’s not like we haven’t seen it before.”
In a program that owns more state titles than all but one other Florida high school, Tampa Catholic has measured its improvement this season by failures to highly ranked opponents.
The Empire on Rome Avenue may have fallen on hard times, but the climb back to the top has already begun.
The Crusaders built on those losses, including two more late in the season, to advance to the region final today. Tampa Catholic (17-11) will face Fort Myers Bishop for the chance to advance to the Class 4A state tournament May 20.
If the Crusaders win, they will clinch their second region championship in four years but only their third since 2001. And it would validate Griffin’s plan to rebuild Tampa’s most accomplished baseball program by cranking up the difficulty of the schedule.
“I think it’s helped us,” said Griffin, in his second year at Tampa Catholic after working as an assistant at King for five years. “It gave our kids a chance to battle and to learn about themselves.”
The education started early, in a home-opening 14-0 loss to rival Jesuit — then the No. 1 team in the nation, according to MaxPreps — on Feb. 16. The Crusaders didn’t fare much better in the March 23 rematch, when they lost 13-1 in five innings.
From there, they went to Sarasota for a tournament and lost three of the next four games.
It was their next tournament, the Catholic Challenge at Orlando Bishop Moore, where the Crusaders started to see results from all of those defeats. Their batters were making more contact, their pitchers were finally throwing for strikes and there was a sense that the worst of the season was behind them.
They went on to win three straight before the tournament finale against Pensacola Catholic, where they allowed two runs on fielding errors in the sixth inning of a 3-1 loss.
“We had them on the ropes but we gave up those two runs,” said senior third baseman Dre Leal, a USF signee. “But I think we earned a lot of respect from them.”
Even better, they said, was the opportunity to get away and bond while in Orlando. They ate together, hung out at the hotel swimming pool and even stayed up late together — something they don’t always get the chance to do when they’re home.
“It was great for team bonding,” senior right-hander A.J. Gonzalez said.
Their remaining lessons would come in their final two defeats of the season, 5-3 to Carrollwood Day on April 16 and 6-0 in the District 4A-9 tournament championship April 25.
Leal calls the CDS loss “the low point” of the season, while Griffin and Gonzalez said the team’s wake-up call came in the shutout to Berkeley Prep.
“It was a long car ride home,” Gonzalez said.
“Losing in the finals did initiate a little fire,” Griffin said. “They were very disappointed by that.”
Tampa Catholic has responded with consecutive wins in the playoffs, including a 5-2 grudge-match victory over Berkeley Prep in their region semifinal Tuesday.
Now brimming with the confidence, the Crusaders are talking about becoming the kind of team remembered in campus lore — which is possible only by contending for a state championship.
“It’d be amazing to bring one home for us,” said Gonzalez, nephew of late school Hall of Famer Julian Gonzalez, who played on state title teams in 1976 and ’79 and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
Peter Mulry, who won four state championships as the Tampa Catholic coach in the late ’60s and ’70s, said championship mettle is often forged in tough times. Something these Crusaders know all about.
“You have to take those losses and learning examples,” Mulry said. “I think they’re peaking at the right time.”
7 p.m. Friday unless noted
8A: Orlando Timber Creek at Durant
6A: Mitchell at King
5A: Auburndale at Jesuit
4A: Tampa Catholic at Fort Myers Bishop Verot
3A: Melbourne Central Catholic at Tampa Prep
2A: Winter Garden Foundation Academy at Cambridge (Doc Nance Field), 4