By Brian Paglia
When the nightmare is revisited, DaCota Cole turns and looks into the memory with an understanding grin. When the nightmare was real and playing out on the baseball diamond at Ola High School this time last year, Cole was shocked and bewildered, head hung low as the Mustangs' promising playoff run came to an abrupt and stunning end.
It was as heartbreaking as it was sudden. In the deciding Game 3 of Ola's second round series against South Effingham, the Mustangs were down by a run going into the bottom of the seventh inning. With two outs, Cole was on third, a runner was on second and the batter at plate walked to load the bases.
Cole thought the bases were already loaded, so he began to trot home with the apparent tying run. But he was met by South Effingham's catcher halfway down the third base line, who tagged Cole to end the game and the series.
All Ola coach Ryan Parejko could do was put his arm around Cole and give him words of encouragement as they walked off the field.
"I was just telling him not to worry about it," Parejko said. "Everything's going to be OK. I can't even imagine when he was going through."
The message to Cole, and the rest of the team that day as they gathered in silence in right field, was of unity. Parejko was adamant then and now that without Cole, the Mustangs might not have even been in that situation. One person, Parejko said, doesn't win or lose a game.
It's been the same message this season for the Mustangs (23-3). They are the No. 1-ranked team in Class AAAA going into their first round series today against Hardaway (13-9), and Cole has performed without any ill effects of that nightmarish afternoon.
Indeed, the senior bounced back to lead the Mustangs in hits (35), finish second on the team in hitting (.426) and anchor the outfield's defense as the starting centerfielder.
And what was a nightmare quickly vanished.
"Honestly, I forgot all about it," Cole said. "I didn't take it too big to heart, because stuff like that happens to everybody. But I'm not going to lie, a few times around the bases I had to look around and check (how many outs there were) this summer when I was playing."
Parejko said he made a point of not bringing up the incident again. What was the point, he said, in dwelling on something that couldn't be changed?
"We didn't really talk about it just because it was behind us and there was nothing we could do about it," Parejko said. "Everybody knew what the mistake was and so it wasn't something that needed to be harped on. We just kind of moved forward, a new season."
Nor did Cole's teammates broach the subject with him.
"They were fine with it," Cole said. "Stuff like that happens to everybody. Of course, they make jokes about it. It's just for fun. ... It's a good team chemistry."
Cole fit right in with the Mustangs' jovial atmosphere after he transferred from Eagle's Landing two weeks into his junior year, and Parejko immediately plugged him into the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
Cole quickly earned a reputation as a tough player with a high intellect for the game, not a surprise for someone who began playing baseball as a 3-year-old growing up in Sharpsburg.
"He's a great kid," Parejko said. "He's head's always in the game. It was just a rare occurrence. For that to happen is a fluke play, and for someone who's usually so focused, it showed the adrenaline of a Game 3, seventh inning and all that."
This season has been less about atoning for Cole's mistake and more about performing under the burden of raised expectations. Ola was ranked in the preseason for the first time in school history. With virtually its entire roster returning, the Mustangs were expected to be right where they are -- a favorite to win the Class AAAA championship.
But even as Ola climbed and climbed the rankings, even as Cole signed a scholarship with Young Harris College, one of the top junior colleges for producing baseball talent in the country, the Mustangs adhered to their one-game-at-a-time philosophy.
Cole's nightmare is now firmly in the past and would be forever erased with a state championship. But Cole and the Mustangs are focused only on Hardaway.
"Not really focusing on (a state championship)," Cole said. "We're trying to just prove ourselves, that we're out here to play and show everyone how we can play. That we have the talent everyone thinks we do."