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JOHNSTON — Wednesday’s season-ending loss delivered a different level of sting for the Strom Thurmond baseball program.

Sure, losing in the final game is always going to hurt to some degree. But to be just three outs away against their biggest region rival from keeping alive a season that started with the tragic loss of teammate Ryan White, then having it end with Gilbert celebrating on the Rebels’ home field after a 6-5 win to clinch the Class AAA Lower State title — the Rebels were understandably distraught.

“They’ve just been so resilient. They dealt with tragedy. They dealt with so many ups and downs,” head coach Mack Hite said. “I couldn’t be more proud to be their coach. They did a really good battling all year long, man, down to that last pitch. They consistently worked so hard. I’m just so proud of them.”

Strom Thurmond’s early 4-0 lead had vanished by the time the Rebels came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning, but then they manufactured a run in their biggest spot of the season and needing a win to avoid a series sweep.

Dalton Hitt, who started the game on the mound, was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and then stole third on a pitch in the dirt. Ethan Bates’ single brought him home, and the Rebels were just three outs away from forcing a winner-take-all third game Friday.

Gilbert, however, loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh and tied the game on an infield single when two Rebels collided trying to field the ball. A sacrifice fly with one out gave the Indians their first lead of the day, and suddenly the Rebels needed a run to extend their season.

Devron Williams struck out to lead off the bottom of the seventh, and Chandler Mims’ deep fly ball to right field was a loud out. Tyler Johnson hit a sharp liner that was snagged by the third baseman, then crouched a few steps up the first base line as Gilbert players poured out of the dugout to celebrate.

“It stings, man, not to be able to win your last one and get so close,” Hite said. “Ultimately that’s life, and that’s a great life lesson that you do everything the right way and sometimes it doesn’t go your way.

“It’s just tough to swallow right now. We’ve accomplished a lot, to win over 20 games and be playing late and have a chance to play is such a privilege and an honor to go against a team like them. It just hurts, for sure.”

The Rebels won the Region 5-AAA title in a one-game playoff against Gilbert after the two ended the regular season with the same region record. Strom Thurmond made quick work of its opponents to win the district title, setting up another showdown between two familiar rivals.

Gilbert took the opener Monday, winning 8-2 to get within a victory of the state championship series.

Strom Thurmond, however, looked more than ready to force another do-or-die game. The Rebels put pressure on Gilbert starting pitcher Joey Parker, putting runners on base and putting them in motion.

Jacob Rushton drove in Ben Jolly in the first inning for a 1-0 lead, and Robert Fallaw scored on a wild pitch in the second to go ahead 2-0.

Chandler Mims led off the third with a double and later scored on another wild pitch, and then Rushton drove in Johnson with another single for a 4-0 lead.

Gilbert struck back in the top of the fourth, though, by finally getting to Hitt. He struck out eight batters in 3 2/3 innings, but he was taken off the mound after walking in a run with two outs. Drew Johnson inherited a bases-loaded jam, and a bases-clearing Gilbert double tied the game.

The Indians again came through when it counted in the top of the seventh, then celebrated minutes later. Across the diamond, Rebels players consoled one another following the end of a season unlike any they ever could’ve imagined.

“Just keep being relentless, keep being selfless,” Hite said of his players. “They’re a team-first group. They’ve been that way all year long. If they go through their life that way, putting others before themselves and treating other people the way they want to be treated, I know they’re going to do great things.

“I’m just so proud of them. When we have time after the sting and really get to reflect, we’ll be so proud and hold our heads high. It’s just a lot of emotions right now for the guys. It really stings to be so close. Again, so proud of them. They’ve just done everything the right way. They’ve worked hard and earned everything they’ve received this year. We’re so proud of them.”