CARY, N.C. – No matter what place they finish in, there's a lot for all of the teams in the National High School Invitational to glean from their experience at the tournament.
For The Woodlands (Texas) High, the only way to take a positive out of suffering their first two losses of the season is to learn from what happened. Highlanders coach Ron Eastman wanted to send that message to his team after their defeat on Friday, and will once again have to reiterate those thoughts after falling 5-3 to Venice (Fla.) High on Saturday.
"I'm big on talking about winners versus learners," Eastman said. "Not only do you want to win a game but you want to learn from the experience whether you win or lose. We talked about what are some of the things we could take home. . .
"Probably the biggest thing was when you're playing at a high level of competition, like our state playoffs, when everybody's good, mistakes are magnified. You can't make mistakes and expect to beat good teams."
The Highlanders didn't look to be at their best in the early innings of the matchup. It appeared as though the disheartening loss they suffered on Friday could have carried over one more day, but Eastman wasn't going to use that as an excuse for his team's performance.
"No excuses," The Woodlands coach said. "[Venice is] a great team, this has been a great tournament and if you don't play good baseball you're going to end up on the losing end. We played pretty good for most of the time. We had that one bad inning where we had three ground balls that we should have made plays on and we just didn't make it. When you play good teams that stuff is magnified."
The Indians got out to an early lead in the first inning thanks to a two-run double from third baseman Mike Rivera. When The Woodlands went ahead with three runs in the fifth, Venice answered with three of their own in the sixth to secure the win.
Rivera highlighted the offense and was 2-for-3 on the day with two doubles and two RBIs. Cooper Hammond went 1-for-2 for the Indians with a double and two RBIs of his own, entering the game in the fifth inning as a pitcher.
"I'm proud of these young men," Venice coach Craig Faulkner said. "To come out here and take third place in a tournament like this. They came ready to play today. Even though it was an early morning, we came to play.
"Ryan Miller [was] pitching for the first time this year, we really found something there. That young man threw a great game. Cooper Hammond doing what he does and Mike Rivera had a tremendous tournament, hitting and catching. So I'm very proud of these guys."
Miller got the start for Venice and went 4 2/3 innings allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits with five strikeouts. Hammond threw 2 1/3 frames and gave up one run (unearned) on just one hit with four strikeouts. Coach Faulkner was incredibly impressed with the effort from his team, especially against a high-caliber team like The Woodlands.
"It's big for us," Faulkner said. "This is championship-type play. When you get into districts and regionals, there are great teams in Florida. We'll compete against teams like this and to handle this kind of pressure and do well speaks well for this team. They're a bunch of winners, so this is a tournament atmosphere, which is what we need. It's hard to get this kind of atmosphere so it's pretty special for us."
The Indians got to The Woodlands after Eastman was forced to take out his starter, Luke Sherley. The junior threw five innings and held Venice to two runs on four hits with one strikeout. Sherley was extremely effective, using just 62 pitches in his outing, and it appeared to hurt the Highlanders when they had to take him out.
"Luke's a middle infielder and he really hadn't thrown more than an inning or two for us this year," Eastman said. "With a good-hitting team like that, there were a couple things – one, his arm. He was very efficient and we hated taking him out. We thought about leaving him in.
"Braxton [Markle] has been pretty good out of the bullpen on the mound. He was good a few nights ago and did a great job for us then. They just put the bat on the ball and we didn't make plays. But Luke may move up. We're looking at him being maybe a No. 2 or 3 next year in our rotation when all these seniors graduate. So it was definitely a thought. He was pitching really well but we decided to stick to the plan and it didn't work out."
Markle threw just one-third of an inning and allowed three runs (one earned) on four hits, striking out one. Jesus Villareal finished the game for the Woodlands with a perfect two-thirds of an inning.
Despite the fourth-place finish for The Woodlands, Eastman is confident that his team has much to be proud of and plenty to build on moving forward.
"We played hard the whole tournament," The Highlanders coach said. "That's what we asked them to do. They never quit, they played hard the whole tournament; all four games. I'm real proud of the effort. Our performance wasn't what we really had hoped for as far as making plays but the effort was there for the whole time. They didn't quit."