FORT MYERS — He wasn't supposed to be on the mound. When the season began, there were college-bound pitchers ahead of Kasey Radke, pitchers who would have been better suited to start with Jesuit's fourth state baseball title on the line.
But when nine Tigers didn't show up for practice on a Monday afternoon in March, everything changed for the high school senior. After the seasonlong suspension of the nine — five of them Division I prospects — the makeup of the team changed. So did Radke's role.
"It was kind of unfortunate that it had to happen that way. But I took it, and I made the best of it," he said. "I had to step up for the rest of the team and just play for everybody."
He did that Thursday when the Tigers took on Green Cove Springs Clay in the Class 5A state championship at JetBlue Park. And Radke pitched his way into Jesuit history, leading it to a 5-2 win and delivering a state championship that for 14 years had been barely out of reach.
Richie Warren, who pitched on Jesuit's last title team in 2000, had coached the Tigers to state semifinal disappointment four times before Thursday. (In all, Jesuit had reached eight state semifinals since 2000.) Despite the loss of the nine players, Warren pushed his team to break the streak.
"The expectations never changed," Warren said after Wednesday's 3-0 win against Sunlake in the state semifinals. "They didn't allow anything they couldn't control to affect how they practiced and played every day."
From the very beginning, it appeared as if Thursday would be different for Jesuit (25-6). The Tigers got RBI singles from Kennie Taylor and Danny Lastra in the top of the first. Radke looked sharp in the bottom half, retiring the Blue Devils in order.
The comfort of a two-run lead, though, didn't last.
In the fourth, Radke's pitching grew shaky. He walked the leadoff batter, gave up a single, then walked two more, allowing the Blue Devils to get on the board.
"That's probably the most nervous I've ever been in my life," said Radke's father, Brad, a former pitcher for Jesuit and the Minnesota Twins. "I've been in a lot of situations where I was really nervous, but this tops it."
Clay (23-8) scored one more run in the fourth on a one-out single from Jacob Turner. But what could have been even uglier for Jesuit turned into a double play when it caught two Blue Devils in a rundown to end the inning tied at 2.
Radke knew then, he said, he had to refocus. So when the lefty went back to the mound for the next two innings, he did so with a fresh attitude. Radke didn't give up a hit for the rest of the game, and he ended the fifth and sixth innings with strikeouts, his only two of the game.
Jesuit's offense followed suit, putting up a pair of runs in the sixth on Ryan McCullers' RBI double and Ronnie Ramirez's infield single and one more in the seventh on Steven Lugo's RBI single.
Radke allowed four hits and walked five over six innings. Ramirez pitched the seventh, walking one but getting the final out by picking off the runner at first.
Prior to Thursday, Brad Radke — who failed to deliver a state title while at Jesuit — spoke with his son about the newfound role; about making right choices; about situations he might find himself in on the mound.
But when it all came down to it, his son followed one piece of advice in particular.
"When opportunity knocks, take it as far as you can," Brad Radke, 41, said, holding back tears. "In baseball, in life, whatever it is."
And that's what Kasey Radke did. All the way to a state championship.