FORT MYERS — On one of the most momentous days of their young lives, they attempted to forge history while fighting time.
In 10 hours Wednesday, in two venues separated by 137 miles and notorious stretches of gridlock, the Jesuit High baseball team’s 13 seniors attempted to win a state championship and participate in their graduation ceremony.
If all planets — and pitching and defense — aligned on this frenetic day, the Tigers would hoist the Class 5A trophy at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers in the early afternoon, then high-tail it back home for their 8 p.m. commencement ceremony at the Straz Center in Tampa.
Success in this twin bill would require logistical fortune and zero lightning delays.
“You want to be able to be a student as well as an athlete for all these things, right?” senior first baseman Jake Glover had said days earlier.
This hectic, potentially historic quest was chronicled through the prism of one Tigers senior: right-handed closer Derek Westfall.
As a junior, Westfall had been cut from the Tigers’ varsity team. On Wednesday, fate thrust him smack into the center of this tense, two-part adventure.
Westfall, 18, rises from a surprisingly deep sleep at the Crowne Plaza Fort Myers, the team hotel. Nervous excitement that accompanies the prospect of pitching in a state title game hadn’t kept him awake. Perhaps nothing could have.
The evening before, he had been one of three seniors — with Bryce Fraga and Brooks Chamberlin — to stay behind in Tampa and attend the seniors’ traditional baccalaureate Mass on campus. A Tigers assistant then drove the three by van down to Fort Myers, where they arrived around midnight.
“I said to my roommate Wilson (Andersen), ‘You got an alarm set?’ " Westfall said. “And I just passed out.”
Westfall shows up for the team breakfast in a hotel conference room and heads to the modest buffet set up on a far wall. It will be his last square meal for the next 14 or so hours.
Over a plate of scrambled eggs, home fries and a small muffin, he talks of his baseball odyssey. A member of the Tigers’ freshman team in ninth grade and a junior varsity player in 10th, he was cut for the first time in his life upon trying out for the varsity as a position player before his junior year.
But he stuck with the game, playing for his travel-ball team, Lithia’s Ostingers Baseball Academy, and developing his pitching chops with sessions at Lakeland’s Florida Baseball Armory. “(The Armory instructors) showed me how to actually pitch,” Westfall said.
He entered Wednesday’s state final against Plantation American Heritage with a 3-1 record, a 1.50 ERA and a team-best seven saves. He had struck out 27 (and walked 10) in 28 innings, with opponents batting .176 against him.
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“It’s a crazy journey to be on with all these guys,” said Westfall, who will play collegiately at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m just really glad I could be a part of it. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The Tigers’ charter bus departs the hotel for Hammond Stadium.
Beneath a partly sunny sky, the state final commences. Jesuit is the home team.
12:50 p.m. (approximately)
An inning after American Heritage takes a 5-4 lead on the strength of a fourth-inning grand slam, Westfall is summoned by coach Miguel Menendez with nobody out and a Patriots runner on first base. Making liberal use of his slider, which features a dastardly dip, Westfall retires the first nine batters he faces, striking out four.
Meantime, Jesuit ties the score in the bottom of the fifth when junior Noah Sheffield — who had reached on an error — scores on designated hitter Zane Pestalozzi’s base hit.
A detection of lightning in the area forces a stoppage in play, just as the Tigers are preparing to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning with the score tied at 5.
Play resumes. Menendez struggles mightily about whether to stick with Westfall after such a lengthy delay. Two nights earlier, in a 3-1 semifinal win against Sebring, Westfall had earned the save with a scoreless 15-pitch final inning.
In the end, Menendez stays with his senior. “We talked about it multiple times, and I probably changed my mind two or three times,” Menendez would say later.
An unsightly half-inning — the top of the eighth — ends with American Heritage totaling three runs off three singles and a walk. The backbreaker: a two-out line-drive single by first baseman Zack Wilson that scores the final two runs.
The Tigers go down quietly in the bottom of the eighth, ending an 8-5 American Heritage triumph. In his longest outing of the season (64 pitches), Westfall gives up three runs on as many hits (all in the eighth) in four innings of work.
“I told him he deserved a better fate,” Menendez says. “And that’s all on me.”
Westfall arrives back at his Wesley Chapel home. After the game, he had hopped in his parents’ white 2017 Honda Pilot SUV and headed north, unable to even drive through a fast-food joint because of the time constraints. He must shower and slip into his tuxedo (Jesuit graduates wear tuxes at their ceremony) in short order.
Commencement exercises at the Straz Center begin in 67 minutes.
7:45 p.m. (approximately)
Westfall arrives at the Straz Center with roughly 15 minutes to spare. His guest list is sprawling: parents Angie and Chris Westfall, his paternal grandparents, maternal grandmother, an uncle, two aunts, two cousins and his 10-year-old brother, Gavin.
“I wasn’t the last of the baseball guys there,” he said, “so it wasn’t too bad.”
Westfall walks across the stage, receives his diploma and gets his photo taken with the Rev. Richard Hermes, Jesuit’s longtime school president.
With that, a day Westfall describes as “very bittersweet” reaches its benediction.
“You know, it’s the end of my high school career,” he says by phone roughly an hour later.
“We had a great run. Obviously, it came up a little short, and it’s really sad now knowing that I’m not going to be able to play with my guys anymore. I love this team, and we’ve been through a lot, so it’s definitely sad. But at the same time, I’m happy we made the run we did.
“My baseball season ended the same day my academic year ended, so it’s kind of a coming-full-circle moment.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.