High school graduation is supposed to be a joyous occasion.
But Pat Crowley wasn't sure on Thursday afternoon whether or not he'd be able to muster even a smile at his ceremony.
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The Vernon Hills senior was at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock about an hour before his graduation was set to take place back at school.
He and his fellow senior teammates from the baseball team had the bus ride back to somehow gather themselves and put on a happy face after a stunning and emotionally draining 9-8 loss to Gordon Tech in their Class 3A sectional semifinal game.
The 24-14 Rams, who will face Grayslake Central in Saturday's 11 a.m. sectional championship game at Marian Central, scored 4 runs with two outs in the bottom of the seventh for an improbable comeback.
"It's a terrible way to end the season, I'll tell you that," said Crowley, who was on the mound in relief for Vernon Hills for the final 2⅔ innings. "There's not much to say after something like that, especially when it ends the season."
Moments earlier, the Cougars (24-12) had every reason to believe their season would be extended at least as far as Saturday's sectional championship game.
Gordon Tech, down 8-5 in the bottom of the seventh, was down to its last out, thanks to two Crowley strikeouts. But just as the Rams were supposed to roll over, they sprung to life.
They drew 2 walks and smacked 2 hits in their next four at-bats, which scored 3 runs.
With the score tied 8-8, sophomore Julian Gonzalez, who started on the mound for Gordon Tech but was removed after giving up 5 runs on 5 hits over the first three innings, found some redemption.
Gonzalez pounced on a Crowley pitch and drove it into center field. It got caught up in the wind and sailed over the shoulder of centerfielder Matt Paszko, who was backpeddling at full speed. Paszko nearly made an amazing catch, but the ball bounced off his glove and hit the ground, scoring the winning Gordon Tech run.
"It was just joy to see that and to be able to win a game like this coming in as pretty much an underdog team," Gonzalez said. "I think suburban teams think teams from the city don't know how to play baseball, that we're not as good as them. But we come out with every effort they do and we work hard every day, too.
"To be able to share this moment with my teammates is just great.
"I was just thinking, 'Get a hit, just get (a run) in.' I had a rough start (on the mound) and it felt really good to be able to come back and win this game for my team. They're my brothers. It was a great feeling."
Sammy Colon, Drew Thomas, Austin Straley and Ian Osinski all scored in the seventh for Gordon Tech. Tyler Sweat and Gary Anish drove in the other 3 runs.
"A lot of ups and downs in this game for us, but that's how we go. It's been like that all season for us," Gordon Tech coach Chris Haas said. "We're very young. We have only four seniors on this team, three who play regularly. The rest are sophomores and juniors.
"But they are battle-tested. We've played some tough teams. They still believed in themselves when we had two outs in the seventh. Some of that could also be their youth, and not understanding the moment. They just kept playing."
The Rams also kept playing through an early deficit.
Vernon Hills rushed off to a 5-2 lead through three innings, thanks in part to an RBI-single from Crowley and a double from Tommy Earhart that brought in 2 runs.
But the Cougars got just 2 more hits over the final four innings as reliever and winning pitcher Ty Tres took control.
"Like I said to my guys, there are no words that can repair what just happened," Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki said moments after leaving his post-game huddle. "You have to tip your cap to (Gordon Tech). They hit the ball hard, they worked the count.
"You feel good about yourself when you've got those two outs in the seventh inning. But then all of a sudden, the tying run is at the plate and they had momentum going."
Then, all of a sudden, Czarnecki found himself trying to console his seniors.
"You really want for your seniors to end in a better fashion than this," Czarnecki said. "They deserve better than this. It's very disappointing. I don't know how they're going to (put aside the loss to concentrate on graduation). I don't know if I could do it. I'm sure it will burn on the way over there. But kids are resilient and hopefully they'll still be able to enjoy the night with their families. It won't be easy, though."