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Clay Rallies For Comeback Win On Mrs. McCool Night

The Clay Blue Devils hosted the Fleming Island Eagles for the annual Mrs. McCool Night on Friday night. Promotional photo by @ClayHighBlueDevilsBaseball.

Box Score

No one from the Clay community will ever forget Claire McCool.

On Friday night the Blue Devils baseball team helped refresh our memories with the annual Mrs. McCool Night, in a home meeting with the Fleming Island Eagles. After honoring the late Clay teacher’s memory all night long, the Blue Devils capped the night in a way that always made her happiest by rallying back for a 7-6 victory.

“Mrs. McCool was a staple at Clay High for as long as I remember. She came out to all the events, and she really loved baseball,” Clay manager Josh Persinger said. “As students, I think we take for granted teachers like her because they are always there for everything. From skittle labs in Stat class to long hours and extended weekend stays during homecoming week, Mrs. McCool embodied what it was to be a servant to the students at Clay High. Even as a young teacher, she treated me as one of her kids and made sure I had all I needed to be successful in the classroom. This game means so much to me because she was an avid Clay Baseball fan and was always with us.”

Claire McCool had such tremendous impact on so many people’s lives. Born on August 24th, 1955, McCool was 62 years old when her battle with breast cancer ended on November 20th, 2017. In those 62 years the mark that she left in so many lives cannot be counted, which included twenty years of teaching at Clay and supporting Blue Devil athletics. She was known to be a force of positive change in people’s lives, a teacher that transcended the typical teacher-student relationship to really connect and love her students. She never lost her sense of humor either, as she was known to joke about her boyfriend, Mike, who was actually her husband.

She gravitated to the highly academic and the athletes, two different polars that were her niche in finding those ones that needed a little something extra. One of her closest friends is Olympic Gold Medalist Caeleb Dressel, who famously wears one of the bandannas McCool wore while she was going through chemotherapy around his neck during his races. NFL veteran Cliff Avril is another dear friend, and several of her closest friends are Clay lifers, such as Olivia Sweat, Julie Breindel-Hill, Jay Stilanou and former Blue Devils manager Rob Thompson.

The late Claire McCool, pictured here with her husband, Mike, in 2016.

Mrs. McCool was present everywhere at the baseball field Friday night. The stands were packed with fans, many wearing custom pink shirts in her honor. Pregame ceremonies helped remind everyone of the special person who is no longer here with us, but who also felt so close by in those moments.

“I can vividly remember her in the stands every game during those magical state runs in 2012-2014,” Persinger said. “I started coaching shortly after I graduated, so I was one of those guys that kind of never left. But she was a teacher for over 20 years and, first of all, she was a very good teacher. She taught AP students and all her kids passed their state board tests. If you ask around people will tell you that Clay High is a very special place, and there is a reason we all come back, and that reason is people like Coach Rob Thompson and Mrs. McCool. She was great in the classroom, but what she did for her students out of the classroom and those relationships is what mattered most. She built those bonds, and I only know about the male athletes, but it was the same thing with the female athletes.”

Those athletes delivered an effort befitting the moment. Hosting a quality opponent and also a longtime rival in the Eagles, the outcome was never a certainty. The Blue Devils got on the scoreboard to lead early thanks to a three-run home run by Merrick Rapoza, and Fleming Island answered back with three runs in the third, and again in the fifth, to go ahead. But then the momentum turned in favor of Mrs. McCool’s team again.

The stands were packed for Mrs. McCool Night.

“At Clay, we talk about The Clay Way,” Persinger said. “This year’s team has been in every game and just can’t seem to catch that break, losing late, 2-1, often time in extra innings. As in past seasons, there’s always that spark that helps catapult the team in the right direction. In 2017 in was the come-from-behind victory after starting the season 1-7. There seemed to be a little extra Blue Devil magic in the air Friday when three doubles late in the game helped Clay defeat its longtime rival Fleming Island to finish off what was already another special McCool Night. I have to believe she was watching down on us!”

Trailing by a pair of runs and down to their final four outs after the first two batters were retired in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Blue Devils (9-6) were running out of chances. Persinger called on a pinch-hitter to come in and try and create a spark, and the move proved to be all the difference.

“Michael Gunson was the quiet hero of the night,” Coach Persinger said. “He started the rally in the sixth with a pinch-hit double.”

Gunson was aggressive with his opportunity, as he jumped on a 1-0 offering and drove a double to right field. Reef Johnson then replaced him on the bases, and he was soon joined by a teammate as J.C. Rosette worked a walk and gave way to courtesy-runner Antonio Griffin. Cole Carnell then delivered a liner to center field that cleared the bags for a game-tying, two-RBI double.

Easton McMahon followed with the winning hit, as he stroked a shot to center for an RBI double that plated Carnell with the deciding run.

Cole Carnell had a monster night for Clay, going 3-for-4 with two RBI and two runs.

It was a big offensive night for the Eagles (10-6), who piled up 10 hits overall. Competing in an environment such as that can be intimidating, with so much momentum favoring the home team. But Coach Mike Martino had his guys ready to compete, and their effort showed it.

After falling into a 4-0 hole right away following Rapoza’s blast and also an RBI ground out from Parker Lowrance, Fleming Island kept battling to take control. Caden Swartz walked leading off the third, Tanner Upton singled to move him along, and then Swartz got his team on the scoreboard thanks to an RBI single from Ben Abram. Chris Reali kept things going with a base hit to right that loaded the bags, and Ryan Kiley drove in another run by working an RBI walk.

Senior Tanner LeClair then earned an RBI the hard way, by getting hit by a pitch to drive home Abram and also keep the bases loaded. But Clay responded with back-to-back strikeouts to end the threat.

Two innings later, the Eagles heated up again to finally take the lead. Kiley walked, LaClair singled and Declan Dunleavy walked to load the bases once again. A passed ball allowed Kiley to come in and even it up at 4-4, and Joshua Murray came through with a liner to left that drove in two runners for a 6-4 advantage.

Murray was 2-for-5 on the night, one of several Fleming Island players with multiple hits. Tanner Upton went 3-for-3, Chris Reali was 2-for-4 and Tanner LeClair went 2-for-3.

As important of a game that it was for both sides, the most important thing was the memory of the woman they all celebrated together. Coaches always want their teams to be a reflection of their values. Friday night the two teams represented everything great that the game of baseball can be to connect people in so many ways in a positive experience.

Claire McCool with members of the 2014 Blue Devils baseball team.

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