Crisp County senior Davin Taylor, left, hugs an assistant coach as teammate Taylor Walls walks off the field following Monday's loss to Carrollton in the GHSA Class AAAA state championship. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
CARROLLTON — A few feet away from first base, Devin Taylor fell to his knees.
With Carrollton High celebrating a state championship on the other side of the infield, Crisp County’s senior centerfielder dropped to the ground and buried his face in his helmet.
He couldn’t look up, couldn’t bear to watch Carrollton’s mitts flying into the air as the Trojans jumped into each other’s arms and basked in the state title victory.
One by one, Crisp County’s other seniors joined their stunned teammate. First it was Taylor Walls who embraced Taylor, then Chris McGinnis found his way to the edge of the infield to share the painful moment.
A group of five seniors that Crisp coach Bill Pate called “five of the greatest men I have ever met,” played their final game together — and the tears wouldn’t stop flowing as their fairy-tale run came to an end.
“We grew up and played with each other since we were this tall,” McGinnis said as he held his hand at waist-level. “Now that we are parting ways, that’s what hurts the most.”
McGinnis, Taylor and Landon Whitman will be graduating and playing at ABAC next season; CJ White is headed to Prince George Community College in Maryland; and Walls will be suiting up for the Florida State Seminoles.
They were five three-year starters who took the Cougars to last season’s Class AAAA state semifinals as juniors and then broke through into the championship series this season. They went deeper than any Cougar team in program history since the 1961 state championship squad.
Pate said he couldn’t have asked for a better group to lead the Cougars on one of their greatest runs in school history.
“They have been the backbone of the program for three years,” Pate said. “It’s definitely a different group, and it’s definitely one of the most special. I have never had a group of young men like these guys. It’s just been a blessing in my life, and I thank the good Lord for him allowing me to work with these young men.”
The seniors combined for four of Crisp’s six hits in Monday’s heartbreaking 2-0 loss in Game 3 of the series.
Even more heartbreaking than the loss was saying goodbye.
“Win or lose, we are still a team and are still family,” White said. “This is the best group of seniors I could ever imagine playing with. I love every single one of them. They are a great group of guys and very talented.”
Each senior played a role in the final inning as the Cougars tried to fight back from a 2-0 hole. Whitman began the inning by sprinting down the fence line in front of the Crisp County fans, waving his arms and calling for the Cougar faithful to raise their voices.
They did, and then Walls stepped into the batter’s box for his last at-bat in a Cougar uniform.
He roped a line drive to Carrollton shortstop Sam Turner, who squeezed it in his glove for the first out of the game. McGinnis followed with a one-out single to right field and then moved to second base on a groundout from Cougar second baseman Bradley Hough.
Taylor stepped to the plate with two outs and smacked a fly ball deep to center field that sent Carrollton’s Andrew Turner fading to the fence. The ball hung in the air, teasing the Cougars until the final moment when it fell into Turner’s glove as he hit the fence.
McGinnis was rounding third as the ball was caught. White was standing in the on-deck circle. Walls and Whitman were holding their breath and clutching their teammates in the dugout.
And they all thought it was a game-tying home run.
Turns out, it was just the longest and most painful out of their lives. White dropped his bat and headed straight for Taylor, who was midway between first and second base when his ball stopped just feet short of the fence.
“I went out there and gave him a hug,” White said. “I told him that it was all good and it wasn’t his fault and that I loved him.”
Standing in the outfield after the loss, Taylor was asked to summarize the season.
He wrapped it all up into one word.
“Legendary,” he said.
After a pause he added, “It seemed like all of the hard work we did had worked off, and after winning that first game I thought we had it. But I guess it wasn’t in God’s plans. You can’t control what he wants you to have.”
Pate, who got choked up as he started to talk about his senior class, was never prouder of his players — not only for their legendary season, but also with the way they handled the brutal loss.
“We didn’t quite win the game, but we won the game of life (Monday),” he said. “We came out on top in that aspect. God is smiling down on this group, that’s for sure.”