At the beginning of this year’s high school baseball season, Palm Beach Central High School varsity boys baseball coach Tony Gullo wasn’t sure how well his team would fare this year. He only had six players with any kind of varsity experience, and that experience was limited.
“Last year, we had a team loaded with experience and talent,” Gullo said. “We had 11 seniors who received most of the playing time for the first 10 games. Then the season shut down because of COVID-19. Then those 11 players graduated. That left us with a small roster of players, most of whom only had junior varsity experience.”
While preparing for the worst, he was also hoping, praying and coaching for the best.
“At the beginning of practice this year, I told my assistant coaches that we would have to coach our tails off this spring, and we did,” Gullo said.
The team concluded its season by reaching the regional semifinals — the “Sweet 16” — of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Class 7A state playoffs. Their season came to an end on Wednesday, May 12 when Gullo’s Broncos traveled to Palm Beach Gardens High School to play the Gators. The Broncos lost 3-1 in a six-inning game that was called after heavy rains arrived at the top of the seventh. Since at least five innings had been played, the 3-1 result held up, and the Gators went home as winners. The Broncos went home thinking about next year.
While Palm Beach Central’s players and coaches were disappointed following their loss in Palm Beach Gardens, Gullo was thrilled with how well his young team responded throughout the season.
In many respects, Palm Beach Central’s season could best be summarized as one where the team constantly took two steps forward followed by one step backward.
“Our players were like sponges and just wanted to learn more about playing baseball and how to win baseball games. We got out of the gates great by opening the season with a 7-1 record,” Gullo said. “We beat some quality teams early in the season. We won some games that we probably should not have won. Then, we hit a ‘speed bump’ and lost our focus. We also had a number of injuries. Players were always in the training room getting attention.”
The most revealing and painful loss this season was to its crosstown rival.
“Back on April 13, we played at Wellington High School and lost 11-1,” Gullo recalled. “It was embarrassing. We committed five errors in the game. Nothing went well.”
That loss to Wellington was a wake-up call for those young baseball-playing Broncos and their coaches. “After that loss, our players really wanted to learn more, and our coaches got them refocused,” Gullo said.
The biggest game of the season was a rematch against Wellington High School — a semifinal clash against the Wolverines in the district tournament. It was a “win or go-home” game, played Tuesday, April 27.
“Our team was not interested in its season coming to an end,” Gullo said.
Just two weeks earlier, the Wolverines had trounced the Broncos. But in the district tournament, it was a different scenario. After seven innings of play, the Broncos had turned the table on the Wolverines, and Palm Beach Central prevailed 4-1.
That victory put the Broncos in the district final against Palm Beach Gardens High School. The game was played at Lilac Park in Palm Beach Gardens on Thursday, April 29. The game started at 7 p.m. and finished late, lasting 11 innings. The Gators won 3-0 with a walk-off three-run homer by Jayden Hylton in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Despite the loss, the Broncos advanced into the regionals as a district tournament runner-up. The loss sent the Broncos on the road to play the Vero Beach Indians on Friday, May 7 in the Class 7A regional quarterfinals. Vero Beach was ranked high in the state polls and had a record of 22-1.
Gullo knew his team needed to play its best in order to have a chance against Vero Beach. “Against Vero Beach, we had strong pitching, solid defense, smart base running and timely hitting,” he said.
After seven innings of play, the Broncos defeated the Indians 3-0 and advanced in the state playoffs. “That was a huge road win for us in the playoffs,” Gullo said. “We were ready to play and compete.”
That regional quarterfinal win at Vero Beach put the Broncos in the regional semifinal game against Palm Beach Gardens, which had defeated Treasure Coast High School 1-0 in its regional quarterfinal game.
This regional semifinal was a rematch of the district final. The game was played on the same field where the district final was played, and it featured the same starting pitchers: Palm Beach Central’s Sam Orozco versus Palm Beach Gardens’ Tobin Moran. In that game, the Broncos had chances to score early in the game with multiple base runners but couldn’t drive in a run.
“We had the bases loaded with two outs in the third, but we couldn’t get the key hit to take the lead,” Gullo said. “And in the fifth, we had the bases loaded with no outs and could only score one.”
The Gators responded with one run in the third and two runs in the fourth to take and keep the lead. Then, there was a 90-minute rain delay after six innings, which washed away any hope of a seventh-inning rally to win the game and extend the season. That 3-1 loss sent Gullo and his Broncos home thinking about next year, but also celebrating the many positives of this year.
For the Broncos, it was a great season, especially since it began with just six players who had limited varsity playing experience.