Justin O'Keeffe and Shawn Williams were stifling on the mound.
By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2002
When the postseason arrived, so did this not-so-surprising edict from Clearwater Central Catholic coach Todd Vaughan:
"I told our other pitchers that I was going with our seniors the rest of the way," Vaughan said. "From that point, it was going to be Shawn, Justin, Shawn, Justin, Shawn, Justin, Shawn, Justin."
Starting with Justin O'Keeffe's district championship victory, no other Marauder saw the mound.
Twice, Vaughan warmed up Ryan Webb. But to help O'Keeffe get through a playoff game against Lake Highland Prep, Vaughan chose Shawn Williams instead, and to help Williams finish off the state semifinal, he went to O'Keeffe.
Neither failed, turning in a string of the most impressive postseason pitching performances in recent memory.
While eight Suncoast teams advanced to the final four, at least one in every classification, only CCC won a state championship.
Williams set a school record with 13 wins and led Pinellas County with 134 strikeouts. He struck out 18 in a game against St. Petersburg Catholic, whiffed 13 in a win over Tampa Jesuit and closed the door on eventual Class 3A champ Jacksonville Bolles by striking out the side in the seventh inning to preserve a win for O'Keeffe. At the plate, he was CCC's best hitter, batting .387 with 8 home runs and 29 RBIs, all team-highs.
O'Keeffe was a perfect 11-0 with a 0.70 ERA, and his three-hit shutout over Florida Christian in the Class 2A title game was his sixth of the season. He saved the state semifinal, coming in with runners on first and third and two outs in the seventh and needed just one pitch to end the game. He twice shut out defending state champ Tampa Catholic and threw a no-hitter against Tampa Prep. After starting slowly, he finished with a .370 batting average and reached base seven of eight times at the state tournament.
Starters since their freshman year, Williams and O'Keeffe realized the great potential Vaughan saw in them. And the rest of their senior-laden team seemed to feed off that. When catcher Brandon Diaz and second baseman Logan James said they felt the Marauders couldn't lose when Williams and O'Keeffe were on the mound, they weren't just spewing cliches.
"You can kind of tell pitching-wise who the guys feel the best with," Vaughan said. "Usually you have one pitcher on the team that the defense is unbelievable behind. You know if you do make a mistake or kick a groundball or drop a flyball that he's good enough to get the next out. With these two, they both got great defense. I don't remember ever having two of those guys."
CCC's only loss this season was to Dunedin, which hit Williams hard. It was also the only bad game either pitched. For those who waited or hoped for the bad outing, well, sorry.
"I think subconsciously we (tried to top each other)," O'Keeffe said. "If Shawn didn't give up a run the last game, then I thought I can't give up a run this game. That was a big part of our success."
So was Vaughan. Though his best work was probably done in the preceding three years getting the Marauders ready for a state title, he pushed all the right buttons this year. When he needed to, he inspired his team, mostly by showing them respect and confidence they spent the last three years earning.
"If he saw something that wasn't right, he'd let you know," O'Keeffe said. "But the key to the whole year was he let us go. Some coaches pressure players too much and they get nervous. He just let us play."
As a result, Vaughan said he was closer to this team than any other, and it had nothing to do with the wins and state title.
"It's not that I talked to them any more or hung around them any more, but I never enjoyed just being in the locker room with a team as much as this one," he said. "I've had some team pretty special teams, but this one ... "