On one hand it was hard to feel too sad for a team that had so much fun while playing the season with boundless gusto. It sang, chanted, stomped, barked, laughed and partied as a unit both on the bench and after the games.
On the other hand, the circumstances were different after Dayton's season-ending playoff loss Thursday in American Legion North-Central District 18-and-under play. The 2-1 defeat by arch-rival Dundalk at Hereford High in Parkton left little room for anything but sadness.
Dundalk, which had scored one unearned run in the first inning off Dayton pitcher Todd Messner, pushed across a second unearned run off him in the bottom of the 10th inning. With no outs and the bases loaded, Dundalk's Rich Estes hit a potential double-play grounder to Dayton second baseman Eric Glenn. But Glenn's throw to the plate bounced in the dirt and to the backstop allowing the winning run to score.
"Heads were down. Everyone was quiet," Dayton assistant coach Gary Kuykendall said. "I didn't realize how much this game meant to them."
The team took a long time to leave the field. The last to leave was Messner, a freckle-faced redhead nicknamed "Opie," after the character in TV's old "Andy Griffith Show."
Messner, a High Point College sophomore, saved the best performance of his life for the game. But he was the losing pitcher anyway.
Kuykendall thought about taking Messner out of the game in the 10th inning after Dundalk's lead-off batter crushed a ball off the fence for a single and the next batter walked.
"I went to the mound to take him out, but one look at those puppy-dog eyes and I melted," Kuykendall said.
The next batter bunted and reached first base on an error that loaded the bases. Kuykendall's faith in Messner appeared justified when, with the infield drawn in, Estes hit a perfect double-play ball. But then came Glenn's errant throw to the plate.
"I was tired. Never pitched 10 innings before," said Messner, who shaved his number, 17, into the back of his hair before the game. "But there was no way I wanted to come out of there."
That kind of competitiveness epitomized Messner and the Dayton team often this season, and led it to an 8-4 first-half record that tied Dundalk and forced Thursday's one-game playoff.
Dayton produced three great fielding plays in the eighth and ninth innings that helped prolong the game. Shortstop Brian Bickerton made a sensational catch in the eighth, and right fielder Mark Trecannelli made a sliding catch in the ninth. Glenn, one of Dayton's top hitters, followed Trecannelli's gem by ranging far toward second base, diving and throwing out the runner at first base.
But Dayton's fielding also broke down five times with errors. Dundalk's first run scored on a throw that got past Dayton's third baseman and went out of bounds.
Dundalk pitcher Mike Coleman threw a no-hitter for 4 2/3 innings until Messner chopped a grounder to right field. Coleman finished with a four-hitter.
Dayton finally tied it up in the sixth inning. Singles by Trecannelli and Bryan Egolf and a walk to Bickerton loaded the bases with one out. Glenn's sacrifice fly -- the first ball hit out of the infield in the air by Dayton -- drove in Trecannelli. Chris Leinauer then fanned on three straight curves.
Dayton had runners at third and first with two out in the seventh but failed to score. For the game, the Raiders left seven runners on base.
Dundalk threatened several times, as Messner allowed five hits and walked six.
The umpires appeared to have called off the game for darkness after nine innings. But North-Central District Commissioner Earl Riley, who was on hand, overruled them and allowed the 10th inning to be played.