JOPLIN — Of course, it never gets any easier for a group of sophomores to play their last game in a Crowder uniform.
Never any easier for the players or the coaching staff or the parents or the fans who bleed Crowder blue.
Especially not for a sophomore group that earned 100 wins over their two seasons and made a JUCO World Series trip their freshman season.
This group (most successful one in program history) includes outstanding pitchers Zach Jackson and Aaron Ashby, Canadian imports Kobe Morris and Tyler Duncan, outfielders Luke Price and Cameron Witt, and relievers Jack Jumper and Adam Scoggins. Don't forget Drew Reilly, who played on the 2016 'Riders that battled for a region title and then missed last season with an injury but traveled with the squad to Grand Junction.
Crowder fell behind too many runs Saturday in the Region 16 championship game against Jefferson at Joe Becker Stadium and the Roughriders' ninth inning rally proved not enough in a 7-4 loss.
No. 12-ranked Crowder finished 46-15 overall on the season and No. 14 Jefferson improved to 50-9. The Vikings advance to the South Central District tournament, earning their first region title since 2012.
Crowder swept four games from Jefferson in the regular season and that's why the 'Riders earned the top seed in the region tournament, since both teams finished 26-6 in Region 16 play in the regular season.
There's an old saying about how difficult it is for a team to beat the same team three times in a season. It must be twice as difficult for six times, since Crowder needed two wins Saturday to repeat as region champions.
"This group of sophomores won 100 games in their time here," Crowder head coach Travis Lallemand said. "I told them down the line this loss doesn't define who you are, it doesn't define what your group was, this is Team 53 at Crowder and what a special, special group. We could have cashed it in many, many times, all the injuries and all the things we had, but it was just the next guy in line stepping up. That's what I told them.
"Soon the hurt of the loss will go away and then the relationships they've developed will be the thing that comes to the forefront. I couldn't be more proud of this group. I know that it ends today and we've got to go home and it's over, but it's never for this group. Their legacy will live on."
Crowder starter Ross Carver and Jefferson starter Josh Ray were dueling zeroes until the bottom of the sixth when Jefferson scored two runs in the sixth and the Vikings scored three in the seventh and two in the eighth.
Ray pitched eight shutout innings and he allowed two runs (both earned) on five hits over 8 1/3 innings and he struck out eight and walked none. Hunter Swift came on for the final two outs.
Carver took the loss and he allowed three runs (all earned) on seven hits over 6 1/3 innings and he struck out five and walked four.
"I think the Ray kid was just that good," Lallemand said. "He kept mixing offspeed stuff and fastballs all day. He found the holes that we had today. It's a tough day any time your season ends but you've got to tip your hat first of all to that guy.
"I knew with Carver on the mound, he was really good against them in the regular season and Ross has a chance to be our No. 1 next year. He's got A-plus stuff, sits in the low 90s with two different breaking balls and a changeup. We knew that he was going to go compete for us really well, he did just that, and if we could have kept a few more of those runs off the board, it might have got real interesting."
Jefferson first baseman Joey Polak, a transfer from NCAA Division I South Carolina, sparked the Vikings with a pair of towering home runs. Polak hit a two-run homer off Carver and then a two-run homer to deep center off Jumper.
Polak and Justin Perkins each led Jefferson with three hits and Matt Turino and Jacob Kalusniak each added two hits to the 11-hit attack.
Freilin Cabrera led Crowder with three hits (nearly half of Crowder's seven on the day) and Samuel Chaput's three-run homer highlighted the four-run ninth.
After the game, Crowder players and coaches hugged and said their byes one-by-one, every single player with Lallemand and assistant coaches Tyler Sawyer and Kyle Williams.
"This is a family-oriented environment," Lallemand said. "I tell the kids at the first meeting of the year that we're going to be around each other more than anybody else in your life. I spend more time with them probably than my own family. It becomes a family environment. They treat my son (Luc) like he's one of their brothers and that's a special, special thing. ... They're hurting right now, but that will go away and they will remember what they have accomplished."
People who have seen Crowder play the last two seasons will not forget.
Region 16 Tournament
at Joe Becker Stadium, Joplin
JEFFERSON 7, CROWDER 4
Crowder 000 000 004 — 4 7 0
Jefferson 000 002 32X — 7 11 0
Ross Carver, Jack Jumper (7), Adam Scoggins (8), Tyler Gregg (8) and Samuel Chaput. Josh Ray, Hunter Swift (9) and Jacob Kalusniak. WP: Ray. LP: Carver. HR: Chaput; Joey Polak 2. 2B: Luke Price; Matt Turino. SH: Raul Elguezabal. SB: Freilin Cabrera, Drew Reilly; Kalusniak. HBP: Reilly. LOB: Crowder 2, Jefferson 8.