Coming off a big win against Martin County in mid-March, the Okeechobee High School baseball team was feeling pretty good at practice before its next game.
With a 4-4 overall record and having won two of their past three games, the Brahmans were right in the thick of a competitive season.
But that next game never came.
“In the middle of practice the coach got a text saying that we couldn’t practice,” said right-fielder Ozzy Osceola.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted everything. For seniors such as Osceola – one of only two four-year varsity lettermen on the team (Brady Markham is the other) – the cancelation was especially tough to digest.
No more at-bats in the purple and gold for the class of 2020; no more bus trips for road games; no senior night game; no chance to battle for a district championship or perhaps make a run in the state tournament like the squad did when Osceola was a sophomore in 2018.
“The worst part was not finishing it and seeing how far we could have gone,” said Osceola, who, along with senior Kaleb Thomas, comprised the Tribe’s representation on the team.
In a district with Port St. Lucie, South Fork, Suncoast and Westwood, the Brahmans figured they had a decent shot at capturing a district title.
“We could have won it all,” Osceola said.
They already had a win against South Fork and an impressive non-district triumph against a strong Lakeland squad. Osceola said the team was playing better than people expected.
But that 5-2 win at Martin County High School in Stuart on March 10 turned out to be the final game. Osceola, who bats lefty and throws righty, started in right field and went 1-for-3 with a single and RBI. He also smacked a shot to deep right field that he said would have been out of the park but died in the wind for an out.
As a key player for four years, Osceola experienced some highs and lows in his career. In his freshman season he had already earned plenty of playing time, which included some as a starter, but his year ended abruptly when he flipped over while driving a 4-wheeler and injured his pelvis. He said he tries to stay off 4-wheelers as much as possible now. Okeechobee finished as district runner-up and lost in the regional quarterfinals.
Osceola made quite an impression in his first season.
“The guy has a lot of grit,” then-Okeechobee coach Eric Kindell told The Seminole Tribune in a 2017 interview. “Great kid and very respectful to the coaches and to his teammates. He gives you everything he’s got. He’s a true bulldog. He’s got a little something you can’t teach. It’s been nice having him.”
As for highs, there were plenty along the way, but none more memorable than the shocker Okeechobee pulled against Jensen Beach in the 2018 district semifinals in what was no doubt one of the greatest moments in Okeechobee High sports history.
The semifinals of district tournaments tend to be packed with more pressure than the district championship game because seasons are on the line in the semifinals. In the district finals, both teams are already qualified for the regionals, so they know there will be at least one more game regardless of the outcome.
On the night of April 30, 2018, the odds were stacked against Okeechobee. The team’s mediocre .500 regular season showed no indication that the Brahmans were poised to do damage in the playoffs, especially against No. 1 seed Jensen Beach. Not only did Jensen Beach crush Okeechobee twice in the regular season (10-3 and 13-1), but the Falcons had ace Lyon Richardson — one of the top prospects in Florida and the country — on the hill when the teams met in the Class 5A-District 14 semifinals. One month later, Richardson was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the second round.
“He was very difficult [to face], but we managed to beat them,” Osceola said.
Behind the arm of Osceola’s cousin Sean Osceola, Okeechobee emerged with a 2-0 win in an intense 8-inning battle that was scoreless until another Osceola — Lucas — scored as a pinch runner in the extra inning.
Okeechobee lost to Martin County in the district championship, but the underdog Brahmans weren’t through with their postseason magic. They beat Dwyer in a regional quarterfinal and then stunned Martin County in a rematch in the regional semifinals.
The surprising postseason journey ended with a 2-0 loss at Doral Academy, but the memories won’t fade anytime soon.
“That was the most memorable season. The most memorable game was versus Jensen Beach,” Ozzy Osceola said.
Osceola and the rest of the 2020 class from OHS graduated May 30 at the Agri-Civic Center. Due to the pandemic, graduates had to wear masks for most of the ceremony, but not when they received their diplomas.
With his high school career done, Osceola is shifting his focus to college. He will attend South Florida State College in Avon Park. He’ll major in business marketing at the two-year school and wants to join the baseball team as a walk-on.
Although COVID-19 robbed Osceola and his teammates in many ways, he’ll still leave OHS with plenty of memories.
“I’ll never forget any of those moments,” he said.