PORT ST. LUCIE — All season, Armwood coach Mike Wrenn has been great at getting his players to chase that dangling carrot.
They saw the goal — whether it was their first district title in two decades, or a march to the Saladino semifinals, or their first state tournament appearance in school history — and ran for it wholeheartedly.
"If we've got to go through a wall, we'll go through a wall," Wrenn said.
So maybe Josh Spano saw only home plate in the bottom of the fifth inning of Armwood's 4-2 Class 5A state semifinal loss to Tallahassee Chiles on Monday afternoon. Maybe he just thought about how scoring could launch a rally that would lead to a trip to the state title game.
But when Armwood's sophomore catcher collided with Chiles catcher Taylor Anders on a play that didn't draw a throw home, it turned an already chaotic game upside down.
Armwood's miscues read like a laundry list: Picked off four times, another time caught stealing, a pair of inning-ending double plays, two defensive errors and three hit batters by ace Robert Benincasa.
The Hawks still had chances to win, and no chance was better than in the bottom of the fifth. Tanner Emmons laced a one-out, two-on double to left-center. Spano, the lead runner at second, made the turn at third and sped home, where he barreled over Anders just in front of home plate.
"I'm not going to tell kids to stop being aggressive," Wrenn said. "That's definitely one of the things that got us here."
In the top half of the inning, both benches cleared when Chiles shortstop Sean Poole slid into Spano on a straight steal at home. Spano's tag, to Poole's face (Poole's left front tooth was chipped), was equally as hard as the baserunner's slide.
Neither coach said Spano's contact with Anders was payback, but the umpires called Spano out and ejected him for "malicious contact." So instead of a 4-2 game with one out and two runners in scoring position, it was 4-1 with two outs.
"The (catcher) is standing right there," said Wrenn, a former catcher. "What are you supposed to do? You're trying to get to the plate, you feel like there's going to be a play so you run straight into the plate."
Said Chiles coach Greg Jones: "He could have stepped on the plate and still missed him."
The Hawks (22-5) added another run in the sixth, but that rally was killed when Joe Cartwright was caught in a rundown. And then in the seventh, the game ended with the tying run in scoring position when the runner at third was picked off.
"It wasn't good," Wrenn said. "Let's just say that. We made some mental mistakes and that ended up costing us some runs."