TAMPA — As dusk descended on Tampa Catholic's field Friday, coach Pat Russo and principal Tom Reidy, two men who had taken separate calculated gambles, shared a joyous embrace.
Russo's risk: giving work to five pitchers Friday as his team built a seven-run lead against Fort Myers Bishop Verot. It paid off, but not without perspiration. The Vikings rallied for six in the final two innings, but TC (20-10) had generated enough offense to escape with a 9-7 triumph in the Class 3A region finals.
The Crusaders embark on their quest for a 10th state crown Wednesday in Port St. Lucie.
Afterward, a sobbing Russo thanked Reidy, who took a perceived gamble by hiring Russo last year, three years after he had been fired at Hillsborough amid recruiting allegations.
"I thank Tom and (athletic director) Freddie (Langiotti) for giving me the chance to do what I love to do," Russo said as his voice cracked. "(Reidy) gave me the chance and I promised him if he gave me the chance we'd get a shot to go back (to state), and we're going back."
TC tagged two Vikings pitchers for 11 hits Friday, with eight of the nine starters accounting for at least one. The Crusaders built a 5-1 lead after two innings on the strength of two-run home runs to left by cleanup hitter Cameron Alford and sophomore Matt Darrigo, the No. 9 batter.
It was 6-1 when Russo, with one eye on the state tournament, pulled starter Derek Martin after three innings and inserted Nick Sucarichi, Ian Hamm, Adam Sproat and T.J. Owen for an inning each. The strategy seemed fine, especially after Nick Perez's two-run single in the fourth gave TC an 8-1 lead.
But Bishop Verot (20-10) scored three runs off three hits and two errors in the sixth. Leadoff hitter Shane Rowland hit a run-scoring double in the bottom of the inning to increase TC's lead to 9-4. Then in the seventh, 250-pound Vikings junior Dan Vogelbach hit a two-run home run, his ninth of the season. Paul Bretton's RBI double three batters later made it a two-run game before Owens fanned Keith Ryan to end the contest.
"I knew Derek would come out and do a pretty good job, but we've got to look forward to Wednesday and Thursday next week," Russo said. "Nobody ever plans to win one."