These are special times for the Audubon baseball program. The players still have big dreams, including taking that final ride through town.
This is a town whose baseball tradition takes a backseat to nothing, a town where the players over the years have enjoyed the fire-truck ride that is awarded to any state-championship team.
Audubon is one victory from taking that trip. The Green Wave (21-5) will meet West Essex (27-3) in the state Group 2 final at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Toms River South.
Since the advent of NJSIAA state championships in 1971, Audubon has won six titles - third-most in South Jersey, behind Gloucester Catholic (13) and Bishop Eustace (8).
Five of those championships have been won by coach Rich Horan, but the Green Wave haven't been to a state final since they won Group 2 in 2001, an eternity for such an accomplished program.
Now, Audubon is back. And even though the Green Wave will face a favored West Essex team that is ranked No. 3 in the state by the Newark Star-Ledger, it won't stop them from dreaming.
"The seniors have talked about what it would mean to win a state championship," Horan said. "All they talk about is riding on that big, red fire truck."
Senior shortstop John Flacco grew up watching the Audubon program, hoping one day to take that ride. Flacco saw his brother Joe, now the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, play on that 2001 state-title team.
"I remember thinking at the time how great it would be to win it," Flacco said.
And he remembers that ride.
"You want to win this for a lot of reasons, but I think everybody wants to get on that fire truck," he said.
The person who will get the ball Saturday is righthander Wade Gies (8-2). Gies was the winning pitcher in Audubon's 4-3 victory in the South Jersey Group 2 final against Buena, so he knows a little about performing in a pressure setting.
"This is what you play for," Gies said. "Growing up, this is the situation you always want to be in."
These are indeed special times, especially for the seniors. Even the practices leading up to the game were savored.
Thursday, Audubon players had a definite bounce in their step during a searing hot practice.
"I always say that it's a great thing to be playing in June," Horan said.
Right now, the players are focused on only one thing. They have come this far, taken such a long journey that began when the weather was about 50 degrees colder in March.
Only a select few get to play in state-championship games. Audubon's players realize this, but they will do anything to achieve that one final win, and a chance to ride in the sunset - with sirens blaring, of course.