Jacksonville High School Baseball
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5A State Finals Is Thompson’s Coaching Finale At Clay

Clay Manager Rob Thompson could not have been more proud of his team.

Since the start of the season the legendary Blue Devil’s skipper has known that he would be stepping down after a 26-year run at the helm of the ball club. But after the way his players performed this entire season, they guaranteed this season would last as long as possible. Clay set program history by making it all the way to the state championship this year, meaning Thompson’s swan song was delayed as long as possible all the way to Thursday’s Class 5A championship at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers.

Even when the dream season ended in a 5-2 defeat to Tampa Jesuit, it didn’t change very much for Thompson and the Blue Devils. That’s baseball, and a man with as much class as Thompson is the first to realize that the Tigers were there on a dream season of their own. After a career the likes of which Thompson has enjoyed with his program, the performance on the field was all he could ever ask from his players.

Jesuit (25-6) was the Goliath in the match, as the club won its fourth state championship in team history and first since 2000. The club is an accomplished program that has been a regular at the state tournament the past few years, and typically the favorites to win it all. Yet it took the Tigers until the sixth inning to pull ahead for good, and the Blue Devils (23-8) showed the heart that had taken them there in the way they battled to that end.

Tampa scored the deciding run on an RBI double on a shot from Ryan McCullers off the netting of the Green Monster deep in left field. Kennie Taylor scored on the hit, after he had reached on an error to begin the inning. Ronnie Ramirez singled McCullers home for an insurance run. Jesuit also padded that lead when Nick Ortega singled and scored on an RBI single from Taylor in the seventh.

Right-hander Dale Taylor delivered a memorable performance for the Blue Devils to keep them in the contest. The right-hander had a shaky start in allowing a pair of runs in the top of the first to fall into an early deficit. Following team ace Andy Toelken pitching a complete-game, one-hitter in its 3-0 semifinal victory over Rockledge, Dale showed that he had the heart to match the incredible ability of their top hurler. Dale settled in and had his composure controlled by the third inning, at which point he began to throw like a guy pitching to win a state championship.

Dale allowed just three earned runs, pounding the zone with 56 strikes on 79 total pitches. The righty did not walk any batters and recorded one strikeout, while going one out short of the distance.

Team chemistry unified the club to make its historic run together this season.

The defense was behind their starter. Centerfielder Wes Weeks led that effort as he dove out on the grass deep near the warning track of the cavernous outfield at Fenway South to snag a liner to end the third. Weeks was a leader for the team and also the school’s entire athletics department during his senior season this year, both in baseball and also as the Blue Devils starting quarterback on the football team. With his wide receiver Jacob Turner out there in left field with him Thursday, the duo enjoyed one last game as a tandem that worked the Green Monster wall together in their final action as Blue Devils teammates.

Like a true leader, Toelken was there to support his fellow hurler on the mound. In the bottom of the fourth Toelkin drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a single to left field from Tyler Morris. Patience rewarded good approaches at the plate for Nick George and Jordan Desuyo, as both walked to end the shutout when Desuyo pushed in Toelken. Jacob Turner evened things up when he smacked an RBI single to right field to bring in Morris to make it 2-2 and make it a three-inning game to decide it.

All year long the team had believed, and in their final effort they left their hearts on the field. The club got this far by beating defending 5A state champion Ponte Vedra, then defending 6A state runner up Mosley, and finally the team that was fresh off their own upset of four-time defending 6A state champs Archbishop McCarthy. Knowing they were the last Clay squad that would play for Thompson, they rewarded their Manager by taking the program farther than it had ever gone before.

It was a great accomplishment for Thompson to end his run at Clay High, located in Green Cove Springs. His 454th career victory with the club came in a state semifinal, the school’s only victory in the state Final Four. Two years prior the Blue Devils had made their first appearance in the state tournament, but fell in the semifinals.

Now Clay will look to the start of the next coaching era to take the Blue Devils the final step of the journey. Thompson prepared to pass the coaching reigns off to Assistant Coach Josh Persinger all season long, needing to devote his time to his family, and particularly his wife Shirley who had endured some health scares last year.

Diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in early 2012, Shirley went to the hospital for a routine hysterectomy in October of that year. During the surgery she suffered two collapsed lungs, and doctors also discovered a hole in her heart. Shirley needed a lungs transplant, something that typically takes seven months on a waiting list to get. While in a medically-induced coma for four days, the doctors discovered a donor match on the same floor of the hospital. A medical miracle occurred and doctors were able to save her life. But after the procedure Shirley had to learn to walk and talk again.

Coach Rob Thompson and his good luck charm, Shirley Thompson.

Even as her health improved and it became likely that Thompson could balance the time needed both at home and with the team, the skipper held to the pledge to give Persinger his coaching chance that he had earned and prepared for. A man like Thompson could do no less then hold true to the integrity and class that has come to define him. His players love him and that love has always been returned. He loves the game and he loves Clay baseball. For twenty-six years he has shaped young baseball players into impressive and successful adults. He has left it all on the field and made a difference in every life he has touched.

It has not just been about baseball. An example of the true worth of the example Thompson sets was shown on the way to the state tournament. The Blue Devils team bus came across a vehicle broken down in the road, and the team decided to pull over and lend a hand. While helping to push the vehicle to safety Coach Thompson took a bad step and turned his ankle. The entire state tournament he had a limp as a result of the injury.

Yet Thompson did not want to talk about anything other than his team and the way they represented themselves on this historic trip to states. After the game Thompson wanted only to talk about his players and not about what the day meant in the conclusion of his Blue Devils coaching career. Nor was he interested in going into great detail about how he got his injury. A man of his class and caliber is too purely humble to ever feel comfortable talking about himself very much at all.

Thompson left the stadium at jetBlue Park holding his dear wife’s hand, slowly limping along on a gimpy wheel. There went a man beyond measure, a legend at his craft and a proud example for the human race. While Thompson may not be in the dugout any longer, he will never be forgotten.

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