BINGHAMTON - Brendan Wright launched his arms in the air seven steps before reaching first base. To his left, Dylan Mercado, the North Collins second baseman, buried his face in the infield dirt. The ball that bounced softly off Wright's bat headed for Mercado's glove but instead trickled between his legs with the bases loaded. The winning run crossed home, Fort Ann's third in the bottom of the seventh, and the Eagles' glass slipper finally shattered minutes after the underdogs sat on the precipice of coronation.
Pitcher Brandon Zielinski crouched on the back of the mound, staring toward center field. Catcher Harley Mehnert stood straight up behind the plate, motionless, his mask dangling from his right hand and his glove from his left. Every player on Fort Ann darted toward first base, mobbing one on top of the other as North Collins trudged off the field, heads down, flinging gloves toward the dugout.
Zielinski sauntered toward his second baseman before engulfing Mercado in a hug. When he turned back for the mound, his hat and glove lying in the dirt, the junior could only itch the top of his head. The celebration continued on the opposite side of the field, the Eagles forced to watch with hands on hips.
A town of just over 1,000, North Collins carried the hopes of a community with it on the bus to Binghamton this weekend, first making its inaugural state semifinal appearance and then reaching its first state championship game. The Eagles even clung to a 4-2 lead over the favorites from Section II heading into the bottom of the seventh inning of the Class D final at Binghamton University, but heartbreak struck with elation so close, a 5-4 final score marking the end of a fairytale run halted mere inches from the finish line.
"It just hurts right now," North Collins head coach Paul Kellner said. "...Unfortunately it wasn't in the cards."
North Collins sensed its crowning moment on the horizon as Zielinski trotted to the hill for three more outs. In the two games prior, the gritty junior sealed victories with his right arm. This one, though, wasn't subsiding as easily with the top of Fort Ann's order stepping to the plate for one final chance.
Adam Winchell ripped a single to left field to lead off the inning before Zielinski retired Jake Beber swinging. One out. Jon Allen and Garrett Bailey torched back-to-back triples to the wall, tying the game at four. Still one out, the state-title-winning run 90 feet away. Cleanup hitter Jeremy Johnson took four balls, then the Eagles granted Tyler Mattison an intentional pass to first. Still one out, bases loaded.
Luke Loso plastered a line drive right at third baseman Tanner Loretto, who knocked the ball to the turf and fired home in time for the force out. Now two outs, the winning run still 90 feet away but a great escape just as close. That's when disaster struck for North Collins, just as Zielinski raised his right hand in the air while the ball off Wright's bat bounced toward second, preparing for an emphatic fist pump only to drop it at his side in disbelief.
"It's my fault," Mercado said bluntly. "No nerves, just a regular ground ball that I've made maybe over a million times in my career.
"I missed it. I don't know."
North Collins gathered on the third-base line to lethargically receive its runner-up medals, then watch Fort Ann receive the championship hardware it came so close to securing. Players crouched, sat, stared, tears in their eyes and no words coming out of their mouths.
After the applause for both teams died down, Kellner motioned his team to third base, where three coaches and Zielinski kneeled while everyone else sat. Here was a foreigner to this stage with the impossible task of consoling his team, while on the other side Cardinals' head coach Dane Clark only needed to avoid the cooler filled with ice emptied emphatically after his team's third state title.
"They know how to win," Clark said of his team. "They have faith in me. It just carries forward."
For North Collins, the only thing carrying forward is the evidence it can get to this stage with a coveted championship still eluding its grasp.
Families and friends crowded outside the North Collins dugout, awaiting with open arms for anyone who needed them. Dylan and Trevor Mercado each sunk into one of their mom's shoulders and sobbed. Parents demanded a team picture with red-eyed players only, then coaches after the three of them exited the field last to raucous applause.
People refused to leave, mingling with each other seemingly to delay the three and a half hour ride home that awaited. One last walk up the beige rock sidewalk and through the black bus doors signaled the ending for North Collins' Cinderella run, just not the ending it wanted.