The longer Jon Bracero talked, the closer to upbeat he sounded.

Though very much a fierce competitor, Bracero also defines level-headed and he understood full well what Frankford High's baseball team had accomplished this season.

So, would he take a big-picture view and put a tough loss behind him rather quickly?

Reality check . . .

"No way," he said. "You never get over something like this quickly. It hurts, especially when you know you had a chance."

Bracero is an infielder for coach Juan Namnun. Check that: He was. His season and scholastic career are over in light of the Pioneers' 3-2 loss to Hempfield in a PIAA Class AAAA state quarterfinal played yesterday under cloudy skies at Spring-Ford High.

Frankford did not go meekly.

In the home seventh, Edwin "Tito" Rohena reached reliever Mike Schusko for a one-out RBI single to left and a walk immediately thereafter to Jose Burgos loaded the bases.

One hit. Soft. Hard. To somewhere. To anywhere. Two guys are going to come frolicking home and we're going to advance to the next round.

Bracero kept having that thought. He just knew it would happen.

It didn't. Robinson Rodriguez grounded into a third-to-home forceout. Frank Donato popped out to shortstop.

The Black Knights exploded in celebration. The Pioneers walked slowly back to their dugout, on the third-base side, and lingered for a good while. There were some tears, but they did not flow in abundance. Mostly there was silence, with some guys looking straight down at the floor and others gazing into distant parts of Montgomery County.

When Namnun pulled them together, he reminded them they hadn't been clocked by 15 runs in three innings, nor by 10 in five.

"We lost by one run," he said, emphatically, "in the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs."

He finished with, "I'll be forever proud of you. Like you can't imagine."

In 4 years of PIAA competition, Pub squads own a 3-16 record and have been outscored in the losses, 178-26. Aside from Frankford's one triumph this year (over Avon Grove 4 days ago), the other two wins were posted by Central in '06.

"Today, I guarantee you 95 percent of the people thought, 'They're gonna go in there and get blown out,' " Bracero said. "Instead, we were right there. Fought hard to the last out."

Bracero went 1-for-2 with a single and a pair of walks. At shortstop, he supported classmate Esteban "Shortie" Meletiche, a righthander, by making a strong relay to gun down a runner at the plate in the second inning.

Meletiche, who allowed five hits while striking out seven, held Hempfield scoreless through five. With one away in the sixth, John Moser cracked a two-run homer, off a high changeup, over the fence a shade to the right of dead center. Meletiche surrendered another run in the seventh on a wild pitch.

Of Moser's homer, Bracero said, "I knew it was a shot. I knew it had a chance."

Meletiche added, "As soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone. Seeing that leave was the worst thing ever."

Frankford had its opportunities. Even the golden variety. It stranded eight runners in scoring position, including four at third base, and could/should have done much more in the fifth when Hempfield, located about 15 miles northwest of Lancaster and the third-place finisher in District 3, committed two errors.

Running hard (and early) on the pitch, Meletiche did score on a steal of home as Jose Burgos held off on a squeeze and the pitch short-hopped the catcher. After Burgos walked, he and Rohena pulled off a double steal. However, a doubleplay followed: Rodriguez fanned on a bouncing curve and was thrown out at first, then Rohena was erased as he tried to dash home.

So many moments for the guys to replay in their minds.

"I came in confident. Knowing we were going to win," said Meletiche, who has committed to Keystone College, in La Plume, Pa. (Way up there; almost in New York State.) "We wanted to prove that a Public League team could make it [deep] into the state tournament. But, hey, it didn't happen.

"I'm down, but really there's no reason for that. I'm part of a great team and I'm keeping my head up."

Bracero, also a wrestler, is bound for Delaware Valley or Penn State Beaver.

"We came into this season with good returning players, and some promising young guys," he said. "I looked around real early and said, 'Hey, we can do some damage.' We did that. Won the Public League. Won a game in the states . . . "

Just not two of 'em. And the close score made it more difficult to accept. *