A roller coaster season has seen the Ocoee High School baseball team overcome adversity and make history.
Junior Orlando Perez knew what he had to do at the plate.
It was the bottom of the seventh in the Class 8A, District 3 title game, and Ocoee High was tied at 6-6 with Lake Minneola.
With the bases loaded and only one out, all Perez had to do was make contact and put the ball anywhere in the outfield to bring Timmy Sides in from third.
“All I had to do was put the ball in play, but in my mind, I always want to hit a home run, so this was my opportunity, because if I don’t we are still going to win because the runner is on third,” Perez said. “Just wait for my pitch, seeing it and just go through the ball — it’s as easy as that.”
In a moment about which every baseball player dreams, Perez wasted no time in becoming the hero the Knights needed. In the first pitch tossed his way, he drilled a shot to right-centerfield.
“Off the bat, I already knew — I started jumping when I started to hit it,” Perez said.
What followed was Sides striding across home plate and a mob of ecstatic teammates squirting water bottles in the air and dog-piling in a celebration that has taken too long to happen.
In the history of the baseball program, Ocoee had never won a district title.
That’s no longer the case, and it’s the players who deserve a big share of it, head coach Chad Hall said.
“It’s more for the kids — they’ve worked hard, and they haven’t had it,” Hall said. “We have eight seniors on our team who have never had this district championship, and finishing almost dead-last last year and having a tough season, they deserve it.”
Much like that district title game Thursday, May 9, during which the Knights gave up a five-run lead before winning on the walk off sac fly, this season has been somewhat of a roller coaster.
Going into this season, the Knights were coming off a tough year under then-head coach Bobby Brewer — who left to become the softball coach at Olympia.
Hall was tapped to take the reins, and although he had been an assistant for the last two years, he thought given the talent and a new approach to the game, he could help his team find successful.
“I knew that we would have to change the way we approach the game,” Hall said. “I try to teach them a little more of the mental aspect of the game — the little things that make up the game. I kind of tried to just teach my style of baseball — running around, talking to each other, not playing timid and playing aggressive.”
To set that kind of tone, Hall’s practices were longer and a bit more intensive than what his guys had been used to.
It was an idea that needed to work. Not only was Hall changing the team’s approach to the game, but also he was changing the difficulty as it relates to the playing schedule.
The concept was simple: Playing tougher competition would help get his guys ready for when it really counts.
“We’ve struggled within our district — we’ve done fairly well outside of it — so my goal was to play a little bit tougher schedule outside of our district,” Hall said. “We knew it might affect our wins and losses, but overall, it would help us in district play. Tighter games, better competition and what we were trying to get is a situation where we would be a higher seed and be able to compete for a district championship.”
The harder schedule would make for a difficult year for the Knights. They started off with some struggles before finally finding their footing in the second half of the season.
“We have eight seniors on our team who have never had this district championship, and finishing almost dead-last last year and having a tough season, they deserve it.”
— Chad Hall
Add in numerous injuries to starting players — such as Garrett Caropreso, Hylan Hall and Collin Hall — and the Knights always seemed to find themselves in a tough situation. But that never stopped them, Hall said.
And then there were the guys such as senior Harrison Koller who came up big for the Knights when they needed more. The senior ace on the team, Koller came into this season having never started a game on the mound — nor had he recorded anything of note.
“This kid is the hardest worker inside the classroom and outside the classroom,” Hall said. “He is the first guy on our field watering it, getting everything laid out, laying down the lines with spray paint; and then cleaning his hands up, coming into the locker room, changing into his uniform and going out there and pitching.”
It’s because of players such as Koller that the Knights program — after all the hard work and sacrifice — has led it to where it is now.
With the win over Lake Minneola, the Knights will play in its second state playoff game when they host Wiregrass Ranch Wednesday, May 15, after press time. So there is still time to add on to an already groundbreaking year.
“We are putting ourselves in a situation to be successful,” Hall said. “We are hosting that first playoff game instead of going all the way down to Tampa like we did two years ago. We know that even if we get down, we can still come back. And it’s playoff time, anything can happen — it’s baseball.”