TOMS RIVER - The Sacred Heart High School softball team couldn't console itself with cries of "Wait till next year" Sunday afternoon.
All the Lions could do was mourn a future that will never be.
Immaculate Conception beat the Lions 6-4 to win the state Non-Public B title at Toms River East.
Sacred Heart won a school-record 31 games and features numerous talented underclassmen. In any other season, the Lions would be considered a team of the future. But the Vineland school, which opened in 1927, is closing this month because of low enrollment. Sunday was the final sporting event in Sacred Heart history.
"We lost a lot more than a game this year," senior Lindsay Dwyer said. "This is just a bump in the road."
The Lions were trying to win their second straight state title Sunday. They beat Immaculate Conception 3-1 in last year's state final.
Immaculate Conception (30-2) played aggressively from the start in the rematch. The Bergen County school belted six hits and scored four runs in the first two innings.
Sacred Heart didn't panic, however. The Lions grinded their way back into the game.
"We've been down 4-0 before and 5-0 before," Dwyer said. "Other teams say, 'This (stinks).' We say, 'We're coming back from this.' "
Dwyer and Kyrsten Makos hit RBI singles in the bottom of the second to cut Immaculate Conception's lead to 4-2.
Sacred Heart tied the game in the bottom of the third. Kaila Smith (2-for-3) knocked in a run with an RBI double. Lauren Dwyer, Lindsay's sophomore sister, scored Smith with a single.
But Immaculate Conception regained the lead with some timely hitting. The Blue Wolves scored runs in the top of the fourth and fifth innings on two-out RBI singles.
Meanwhile, Sacred Heart managed just one hit over the final four innings.
The Lions did get the tying run to plate in the seventh and final inning. But they couldn't score. Immaculate Conception celebrated the first state championship in its program's history.
The 13 Lions players – two seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and four freshmen – walked to center field to meet with coach Les Olson.
"I told them (after the game) that I love them to death," Olson said. "My (only) regret is that I won't be able to coach them anymore."
Sacred Heart sports teams have produced some of the top moments in Cape-Atlantic League history. The boys basketball team was a power under coach Jim Mogan in the 1970s and 1980s. The Lions are the only local boys team to ever beat national power St. Anthony of Jersey City, having won 75-68 in overtime on March 10, 1979 to win the now-defunct state Parochial C title.
The Lions girls basketball team won state titles in 2003 and 2005. The Sacred Heart baseball team won the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic in 2008, becoming one of only three local teams to ever win that prestigious event in its 40-year history.
This softball team will be remembered as much as any team in Sacred Heart history. School officials announced in April that the Camden Diocese would close Sacred Heart. From that point on, the Lions played not only for themselves but for the entire Sacred Heart community.
"Just being defending state champion is pressure enough," Olson said. "To have the school (closing) announcement happen early in the spring adds another aspect to it. It's amazing the team records they set with all that pressure. It's a credit to them."
The Lions hang out together on and off the field.
"We're really close," junior center fielder Gabby Castellini said. "We're great friends. We're with each other all the time. It's just sad."
Most of the Lions seemed composed after Sunday's loss until they said the "Hail Mary" prayer as a team.
"I kind of lost it," Dwyer said. "You can look around the circle and see 13 girls you spent a whole year with."
The Lions ended their postgame meeting by counting down "1-2-3" and shouting "Lady Lions!"
The Lions then spoke with reporters about the game and their season. They left the field and got hugs from friends and family.
"Everyone is upset," Dwyer said. "But honestly, this is just the beginning. It's a road going 13 different ways. We were 31-4, the best record in Sacred Heart history. I can't possibly cry about that. That can never be taken away."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Immaculate Conception 130 011 0-6 11 2
Sacred Heart 022 000 0-4 8 1
2B: Georgatos, Krakower IC. Smith (2) SH.
WP: Piening (6K) LP: LaGrotta (2K)
Records-Imm. Conception 30-2; Sacred Heart 31-4