WEST WINDSOR - In the storybook, Dan Sieracki rips the game-winning hit, scoring Kevin Stephens and Dante Oriente, who slides headfirst across home plate.

In the storybook, the Bishop Eustace Prep School baseball team wins the South Jersey Non-Public B title and advances to Saturday's state championship game.

In the storybook, the Crusaders' three seniors walk a little taller at graduation, coming just hours after another upset victory in a remarkable tournament run.

"I thought," Sieracki said, "it was going to be a storybook ending."

That's the thing about storybooks: They aren't real.

Athletes lie in bed and dream about game-winning hits, improbable rallies, upset victories. They dream about holding trophies above their heads, thrusting their right index fingers in the air.

It's fun. It's fuel, too.

It's part of the beauty of this stuff: The way these kids hope and imagine, the way they strive to turn those aspirations into actual moments on the dusty clay, on a hot and sunny day.

But far more teams fall short than cross the river. Most senior athletes end up like Sieracki, Stephens and Oriente, soon-to-be graduates standing on the side of the field, looking back at a game, a season, a career.

"Not every day is a state-championship day," Stephens said after Bishop Eustace lost, 4-1, to St. Rose yesterday in the South Jersey Non-Public B championship game at Mercer County Park.

They were the only seniors on a team that rallied from a sluggish start to make the sectional title game.

They were the leaders of a team that won seven of its final nine games and upset top-ranked Sacred Heart in the sectional semifinals.

They were the guys who gathered the Crusaders together before yesterday's first pitch and set the agenda: "Let's get this train rolling," Stephens bellowed from the middle of the pack.

"They've been exemplary," Bishop Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said. "This is how it goes. Maybe eight or nine times in our history, we end the season with a smile. Every other year, it's like this.

"This is what happens. But I feel bad for those three kids."

Stephens was among the Crusaders' top hitters with a .378 average. He also was the team's vocal leader.

Oriente was a valuable role player, the team's "unsung hero," according to Stephens.

Sieracki was the team's inspiration. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in January. He underwent surgery and didn't play until the middle of May - then went 8 for 20 and hit a grand slam in the victory over Sacred Heart.

"I worked so hard to get back," Sieracki said.

In the storybook, Sieracki keeps it going, and so do the Crusaders.

In reality, Bishop Eustace managed just three singles yesterday, and Stephens' opposite-field blast with a runner on base in the fourth curved just foul.

"We were blessed to play here," Stephens said. "This is a great program, with great coaches, a great tradition. It's hard to leave."

Said Oriente: "Graduation is going to be tough."

The three seniors received their diplomas last night, based on their work in English and mathematics, in history and science.

But they learned valuable lessons on the baseball field as well.

They learned they can lose a game and still walk tall, proud of their season, proud of their team, proud of themselves.

They learned something else, too.

"Life goes on," Sieracki said.

It's true, and it's often better than a storybook, too.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com.