BATTLE CREEK — The finality of it all finally caught up with him.
The end had arrived, one win shy of the ultimate goal every season begins with.
How would he remember this team, and this year, Birmingham Brother Rice baseball coach Bob Riker was asked.
“I’ll remember it like every other team I’ve been a part of,” he replied almost instantly.
Then came the pause.
Suddenly choked up, Riker had to fight off the emotional acceptance that the 2013 group of players would be moving on.
So it is at the end of every season, but every season doesn’t end in Battle Creek.
“It’s never about wins and losses, but the individual guys,” Riker continued, speaking moments after a 1-0 loss to Bay City Western in the Division 1 title game at C.O. Brown Stadium. “You love to win championships, but it can’t always be about that. It’s about these kids and what they’ve done. They showed up all year and put so much into this. Like the teams that came before them, hopefully they left something for the next group of guys to keep going.”
The next group has a lot to live up to.
At one point this season, following a Catholic League championship, no less, Riker said his guys could either be the most over-rated team in the state or one of the best.
“It’s up to them,” he said at the time.
Entering the June 15 final, and including the win at Comerica Park, the Warriors hadn’t lost (11-0-1) since May 13.
“I don’t know if anything happened or changed. Maybe it was just the maturing process,” Riker said of how his team played down the stretch. “You can’t win a state title in April or May, so they had some things to figure out. They really came together.”
You can win one in June, though, and this group just about did.
After Matt Rupenthal’s four-hit gem in a 5-0 victory against Howell High June 14, Rice squared off with Western in a D-1 final that pitted Warriors against Warriors: a fitting parallel to the battle that would eventually ensue.
Connor Foley took the mound for Western and was dominant.
Randy Righter got the start for Rice and pitched two scoreless innings before Dalton Greyerbiehl took over and matched Foley, pitch for pitch.
In the sixth, though, after two outs, Western pushed across its only run; and it was all the support Foley would need in picking up his eighth win in eight decisions this season.
“He kept us off-balance,” Riker said of Foley, who allowed five singles and a Ruppenthal double while striking out four and walking one. “He threw strikes. … He changed speeds, and when we got people on base, we didn’t do anything with it.”
“The guys played their hearts out,” Riker added of his team. “I’m real proud of them.”
Understandably, dejection filled the Rice dugout following the game. A season of so many wins was left without the biggest.
Pressed about next year, Riker had little comment, instead focusing on his guys and what they had done.
But the facts remain.
This 32-9-1 team has just four seniors on its roster and still reached the state final for the first time since winning it all in 2008.
Many guys set to return have two or three years of varsity experience already, not to mention a trip to the Cereal City officially under their belt.
“Every year is different, and that’s what I try to tell our guys,” Riker said. “Just because we’re here now doesn’t guarantee we’ll be back next year.”
Maybe not, but the expectation to get back certainly will be.