For some, it might represent the final time they compete in an organized baseball or softball game.
For others, it’s a confidence-building stepping stone for the launch of their respective collegiate athletics careers.
For all, it was a special event to cherish and remember.
The fourth annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) Pasco County All-Star Baseball and Softball Game brings together the best senior players, from every school, to compete in one last game for bragging rights between the county’s east and west sides.
About 45 baseball players and 26 softball players were selected for the event, representing the following schools: Academy at the Lakes, Anclote, Bishop McLaughlin, Cypress Creek, Gulf, Fivay, Hudson, Mitchell, Land O’ Lakes, Pasco, River Ridge, Sunlake, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills.
Besides four designated all-star head coaches, coaches from just about every program pitch in to assist in some form or another.
The May 22 games were played simultaneously on adjacent baseball and softball fields at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, in Spring Hill.
The West All-Stars reigned supreme over the East All-Stars in both contests.
The West claimed victory in the softball game on a 10-0 mercy rule.
Baseball offered more hijinks, as the West won 11-8 on a three-run, walk-off blast from Mitchell’s Keaton Howard in the bottom of the ninth inning to break an 8-8 tie.
While winning was important, to players and coaches alike, the showcase was more about capping four years of high school and relishing the prep ballfields one final time with families, friends and teammates, in a relaxed setting.
Consider it a swan song, of sorts.
“Think about it — this’ll be the last game that these seniors play, not only for the school year, but for their whole high school career, so we’re sending them out with a big bang,” said FCA Pasco area director Bob Durham, who coordinates the all-star showcase.
“It’s the best players from every school, getting to play with each other, but against the other side of the county, so they’re pretty excited about it, and they’re ready for their summer, but they’re ready for one more game.
“We just try to make it a special experience for these kids and the parents, and the fans and the community. Every school in the county’s involved, so they try to promote it for a week or two before the game to get some attendance out here.”
Rosters were finalized midway through the regular prep season, where all-star baseball and softball coaches deliberated the best collection of players through a draft format, taking into account offense, defense, and pitching metrics, among other factors.
These coaches “sell their players” to one another, Durham said, until they can all agree upon a final roster. Usually, this exercise takes place in a physical meeting room, but this year the selections were made in a virtual setting on Zoom.
The all-star event also included an awards dinner banquet the night before, as well as a couple tranquil meetings and practices in the week leading up.
In the awards ceremony, Durham explained athletes were recognized not only for on-the-field accolades and statistics — like countywide leaders in strikeouts and RBIs — but also in exhibiting FCA’s core values of service, integrity, teamwork and overall excellence; athletes gunning for these awards submitted personal stories of how they exemplified these qualities in their day-to-day life.
Recognition was bestowed for highest GPA and character, as examples.
“We want to honor those values in kids,” said Durham, “so we make it special, not only in just a game with skill, but in virtues and character.”
Putting rivalries aside to have fun
Wiregrass Ranch varsity softball coach Yamani Vazquez said the all-star shindig is an opportunity to put school rivalries aside and celebrate together in pre-game festivities and practices.
Ironically, Vazquez’s daughter, Hailey was a standout pitcher at Cypress Creek High School — a rival of the program he coaches.
“This is the moment that everyone comes together,” said Vazquez, who’s involved in the event each year. “They were really in high spirits. It was like they knew each other and were really talking to each other. It’s good, because it brings all teams together, and that’s what it should be, you bring the best players from all the teams, to play together.”
Wesley Chapel varsity softball coach Lauren Pasquale — serving as East All-Star head softball coach — likened the event as “a fun last hurrah” and “the prom of the softball season.”
Pasquale graduated from Zephyrhills in 2011 and went on to play Division I softball at College of Charleston in South Carolina.
A decade ago, she competed in the prestigious statewide Florida Athletic Coaches Association (FACA) All-Star Classic.
Pasquale didn’t know many of her fellow peers in that event, so there’s something extra special about having a county-specific sendoff for high school seniors, she said.
“Looking back, it would’ve been cool to do this,” Pasquale said, “because it was more kids that you grew up with and played with, so it would’ve been more like a community feel versus a one-in-the-number kind of feel.”
Wiregrass Ranch varsity baseball coach Marshall McDougall, serving as East All-Star head coach, also characterized the event in a good light: “I think it’s one last time for the kids to go out and have fun, with kids they’ve grown up with, so they’re all the same age, they all play in this area.
“A lot of kids have played together at younger ages and then with different schools, so I think it’s a really good experience they get to play together again, and their parents get to see them play one last time, in a relaxed setting, there’s no stress, and just have some fun.”
A pair of mid-week practices that coaches organized wasn’t about structured drills or high-intensity workouts, but more so about positive messaging as players head off to new endeavors.
McDougal put it like this: “As coaches, you just like to think you can leave an impression on all the kids, about, ‘Hey, baseball’s supposed to be played for the love of the game, have fun with it, you learn a lot of life lessons from it, so just play baseball.'”
That was the general mindset for Cypress Creek pitcher/shortstop Zachary Buelk leading into the contest.
The 6-foot-4 Buelk — primed for college ball at Georgia’s Thomas University — steered Cypress Creek to a 20-6 mark and the 4A regional quarterfinal in early May, posting a 0.51 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 27.1 innings pitched.
“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to (with Cypress Creek),” he said, “so it’s fun to come out here and have one last game, and not really have stress on it; just come out and just play baseball.”
East All-Star teammate Josiah Bayona was a super utility standout at Academy at the Lakes, leading the team in batting average (.361) and stolen bases (33) this season, among other categories.
The county all-star happening has “just been a great experience” for him.
“It’s sort of like one last high school game — a great end to how it should be, compared to the teams here who ended their seasons early, due to just the postseason (losses),” said Bayona, who’s signed with NAIA Webber International University in Babson Park.
He added: “Some of these guys I played with when I was in Little League when we were 7. You know, it’s fun seeing these guys as we’re growing up and now that we’re seniors.”
Academy at the Lakes right-handed utility Vanessa Alexander will continue her softball career at Brown University, a Division I Ivy League school in Providence, Rhode Island.
Getting picked for the all-star showcase is “really special,” Alexander said, though she acknowledged mixed emotions gearing up for a move some 1,300 miles north of Land O’ Lakes.
“It’s really exciting, but also kind of sad,” Alexander said, before the game. “It’s bittersweet, since this is my last high school game ever, but I’m really excited…to get together and play one last time.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic still on many minds, Alexander said, “I’m really fortunate and glad we were able to play a full season and play this all-star game, which I think is really awesome that they put on every year.”
Sunlake star outfielder Kendra Falby likewise expressed appreciation to organizers for rebooting the all-star event after it was wiped out last year amid the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Because of COVID, we haven’t really gotten to do much, so it’s been nice to come together and put something on for us, so it’s been like super special,” Falby said.
Falby has already made quite a name for herself in the sport on a widespread scale — a Division I University of Florida signee and member of the 2019 Canadian U-19 women’s national team. The 5-foot-7 lefty hitter also boasted the state’s seventh-highest batting average (.678) along with eight doubles, six triples and 29 steals, across 18 contests this past year.
Despite garnering more notable accolades elsewhere, being involved with the local showcase still holds meaning for Falby.
“It’s cool,” she said, “because working hard all season and then it paying off and being a part of a very select few, it’s an honor.”
Pasco County All-Star rosters
Head coach: Marshall McDougall, Wiregrass Ranch
Academy at the Lakes
Head coach: Howard Chittum, Mitchell
Land O’ Lakes
Head coach: Lauren Pasquale, Wesley Chapel
Academy at the Lakes
Land O’ Lakes
Head coach: Mark Williams, Gulf
Published June 23, 2021