DENVER - Beads of sweat born from hung heads crashed onto the dirt-coated floor of Lebanon's dugout long after it had housed a ball club teeming with hope and joy. Had they instead been tears falling, you would've understood.
For after seven must-win innings, only two Cedars co-captains remained, attempting to grasp a consuming pain that had largely been absent from their suddenly concluded season; one of the most prideful and accomplished in program history.
But the price of pride will always be the threat of a later fall. And following a spring when the Lebanon baseball team welled more pride in its players, coaches and supporters than it had in two decades, the Cedars' fall at last arrived Wednesday.
Three hits were all Lebanon could manage in a 4-0 shutout at Cocalico, which coupled with Elco's win over Donegal, ended any hope of a postseason berth. Alec Sherk's complete game led the Eagles (11-8, 10-5 Section Three), who broke through via an four-run outburst in the fourth. Cocalico followed Nick Lucky's leadoff double with a half-dozen singles that earned Austin Harven, Tyler Stricker and Brett Geib RBIs.
The Cedars (12-8, 10-6) failed to register a hit until the sixth inning and then smacked two more in the seventh during a last-ditch effort to qualify for the Lancaster-Lebanon League tournament. Lebanon's Cam Shaak reached base twice, while starter Danny Caricabeur went six innings, allowed 11 hits and struck out five.
"It's a tough feeling because I love these kids. I wish more for them, but I also couldn't be prouder," Cedars coach Mike Toomey said. "We never quit. We finished the game the same way we go about everything we do. We played hard, played to the end and let the results take care of themselves."
Rooted in strong commands of the strike zone and his pitch repertoire, Sherk took care of Lebanon bats early and often, akin to his start during a 1-0 Cedars win one month earlier. Even Lebanon's first hit, a tiny dribbler from Shaak, was more so a credit to the junior's speed than solid contact.
"(Sherk) walks out on the mound and expects this. That's what makes him good," Eagles coach Mike Bertolino said. "When he has his breaking ball and throws it for a strike, it's very difficult to hit him."
Down to their final out, the Cedars' greatest success inside the box finally arrived when Michael Deleon first poked an infield single up the middle and Antonio Collazo next cracked a double to left. But when Austyn Yerger, one of the lingering co-captains post-game and pillars of the program's turnaround along with Caricabeur and Logan Blouch, flied to right, that was it.
"It hurts a lot because of all these guys have done, how much they have grown and developed over the last two years," Toomey said. "It is the end for a number of them, and I know that hurts. But I hope it hurts because they know they were in a very meaningful game.
"We were in uncharted waters for this last week and a half. These kids didn't know what that was and still cherished it over a good run of the past four games."
A good run that made for one tremendous season and perhaps an even brighter future.
After all, the pain is temporary. But the pride, that should be forever.