FORT MYERS — The breakthrough seemed only a run away, especially after Daniel Portales delivered the tying single in the bottom of the fourth.
Then Jesuit failed to score with the bases loaded. It happened again with runners at first and third base in the bottom of the fifth. In the next inning, the Tigers stranded a runner on second base.
They were running out of chances, and nearly everyone in their dugout and JetBlue Park knew it.
“I kept saying, ‘This is our inning. This is our inning,’ ” Portales said. “But it didn’t happen.”
Ponte Vedra eventually took advantage of the opportunities that Jesuit wasted, scoring on Chris Levitt’s RBI single in the eighth inning for a 2-1 Class 5A semifinal win Wednesday night.
It was a shocking finish for the Tigers (27-3), which came into the game as MaxPrep.com’s fifth ranked team in the country and a prohibitive favorite to return to the championship game.
Instead, Jesuit was again denied a state title in its fourth consecutive trip to the final four. The loss was particularly ironic since it came against a team the Tigers defeated 19-0 in their 2010 semifinal match — the first of their recent state tournament teams.
“It’s been four years now and we just can’t come through,” said Portales, a senior and USF signee. “But one year we’re going to get it.”
Because, of course, there’s always next year to look forward to on North Himes Ave.
But this team was supposed to be different. The Tigers had seven college signees on their roster, they returned a large senior class with plenty of big-game experience, and they boasted so much talent they were the nation’s consensus No. 1 team much of the season.
In retrospect, there should have been some signs Jesuit wasn’t quite as unbeatable as it seemed.
The Tigers averaged fewer than four runs in their final eight games, a huge dropoff from their 12 runs-per-game average in their first 22 games — most of them lopsided wins.
Their offensive struggles showed up again against Ponte Vedra (20-11), which went with 6-foot-3 senior right-hander Matt Deegan to start the game.
Jesuit could only muster one hit against Deegan in the first three innings, while Portales also managed to keep the Sharks — who entered with their top hitter averaging .275 — off the board.
In the fourth, Ponte Vedra scored its first run on a throwing error to first. Jesuit sophomore Ronnie Ramirez came in for Portales after that and got the final out of the inning.
The Tigers tied the score at 1 on Portales’ RBI single, which brought Leland Saile home, in the bottom half of the inning but failed to score again with the bases loaded. It would become an ominous trend.
“We got close,” Jesuit coach Richie Warren said. “We had a lot of opportunities tonight.”
The Tigers never got a runner past second base after the sixth inning, and Ponte Vedra finally made good on one of its scoring opportunities in the top of the eighth against Jesuit ace Spencer Trayner.
Trayner, who came in for Ramirez after Jordan McKenna’s leadoff single for the Sharks, got off to a rough start: his balk moved a runner over to second; a wild pitch allowed the runner to get to third; then he surrendered the go-ahead RBI single to Chris Levitt.
Trayner quickly got the next three outs but Jesuit, once again, couldn’t generate any offense in the bottom half of the inning and went down 1-2-3 to bring an ignominious close to the season.
The Sharks, now in their third final-four appearance in only five years, took particular pleasure in delivering a knockout blow to the team that had embarrassed them only four years earlier.
“That was the best loss of our program,” Ponte Vedra coach Tom Stanton said. “It was an eye-opening experience. We learned from that, and we weren’t scared to see them.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.
Photo: Daniel Portales reacts after Jesuit’s 2-1 Class 5A semifinal loss to Ponte Vedra. MARC BEAUDIN | Special to Times