HUGHESVILLE - The team many outside its dugout wrote off earned a distinctive achievement Monday.
A season after six starters graduated, South Williamsport became the first District 4 Class AA team to clinch a playoff berth. The Mounties reached that milestone without losing a game and have proven that the only thing changing every year at South is the players' names.
Cody Nelson threw 5 2/3 solid innings, Tyler House stranded the tying runners in the bottom of the sixth and South erupted for seven seventh-inning runs as it defeated Hughesville, 15-6 at Bodine Park in a wild game on a rainy day. The Mounties also scored six first-inning runs, improved to 10-0 and maintained a one-game lead over Loyalsock in the HAC-II.
Joey Balawajder and Zach Staver high-five during South Williamsport’s win Monday at Hughesville. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
"A lot of people thought we weren't going to be the team we were last year. They thought that we weren't going to be that great," said South left fielder Anthony Caruso, who ignited the seventh-inning rally with a one-out single. "Then we came out and showed people that we're better than they gave us credit for."
How South clinched that playoff berth is exactly how it has silenced the doubters. Nine straight players, everyone in the lineup, delivered either a hit or drew a walk after Hughesville (5-6, 4-4) had cut a seven-run deficit to two in the bottom of the sixth.
South does not overwhelm opponents with one or two superstars. But everyone can play, everyone can hit and everyone can make big plays. Instead of fighting back with words during the preseason, South waited until the games started and has let its play do the talking.
"We don't have the best talent 1-9 but I wouldn't trade these guys for anybody," South coach Shawn Finn said. "They work hard and they battle. If someone told me we'd be 10-0 right now I'd be scratching my head but we beat some good teams along the way and we're going to keep battling."
"We're definitely a team. We're like a family," said catcher Justin Knee, who went 2 for 5 and threw out three baserunners. "If one person isn't doing good than another person is. We keep each other up."
That was evident in the seventh inning. After Hughesville scored five two-out runs and pulled within 8-6, left fielder Sean Poust made a great play and threw out Ryan Orgitano trying to stretch a single into a double. Caruso and Zach Welter, though, hit consecutive singles and South kept hitting and scoring from there.
Zach Staver hit a RBI single and Billy Rummings added a two-run single a batter later, making it 11-6. House (2 for 5, 3 RBIs) followed with a two-run single and another run scored on an error. Knee singled a batter later and House scored on a throwing error as South went up 15-6. After being held hitless from the second through sixth innings, South came alive at a crucial time.
"We needed something to start off that inning," Caruso said. "Orgitano's hit helped get the confidence up. Even though he got out it still helped us."
"That was big. Good teams come back," Finn said. "Hughesville did a great job coming back and hat's off to them so going up nine in the bottom of the seventh as opposed to two is big."
South appeared ready to make quick work of Hughesville, scoring six runs in the top of the first. Knee sparked the rally with a one-out double. Nick Mistretta hit a key two-run, two-out single and House followed with a RBI single to cap the rally. Two Hughesville errors gave South an 8-1 third-inning lead but the Spartans did not go away.
Tyler Mitcheltree was terrific in relief, throwing 5 1/3 innings of one-hit baseball before the seventh. He gave Hughesville a chance to comeback and it did in the sixth, finally breaking through against Nelson after the sophomore had retired two straight with the bases loaded. Following a Christian Fish RBI walk, Poust hit a two-run single.
Brady Kimble followed two batters later by hitting a swinging bunt down the first-base line. He missed a diving tag attempt by House and smart baserunning by Poust turned the infield hit into a two-run single. The pressure mounting, House answered and used a knee-buckling curveball to get an inning-ending strikeout and strand runners at first and second.
"We got down 6-0 in the first inning and we could have folded the tent right there and we didn't. We battled back down 8-1 and had some good at-bats," Hughesville coach Casey Waller said. "I just hope our guys find a fire and find that competitive edge where they can bring it day in and day out every pitch, every at-bat, every play in the field rather than being inconsistent and that's where were are now. I know it doesn't look like it but I believe we're getting there."
Justin Lambert had a nice day for Hughesville, going 2 for 4. He doubled in the second inning and scored on Jeremiah McCarty's grounder before hitting a sixth-inning single that helped fuel the rally. Poust played well too and only a spectacular diving catch by Rummings in the right-center field gap prevented him from having a one or two-run second-inning hit.
The Rummings catch and Knee throwing out three baserunners get lost in the boxscore but were pivotal in the game's outcome. So was Nelson throwing two-hit baseball through the first five innings.
They were little things that helped South achieve the first of what it hopes are many big things.
South602 000 7-15 11 2
Hughesville010 005 0-6 6 4
Cody Nelson, Tyler House (6) and Justin Knee. Cody Stryker, Tyler Mitcheltree (1), Jason Stroup (7) and Justin Lambert. W-Nelson, (2-0). L-Stryker, (2-1). SV-House, (1).
Top South hitters: House 2-5, 3 RBI, R; Knee 2-5, 2B; Anthony Caruso 2-5, RBI; Zach Welter 1-4, RBI, 2 R; Joey Balawajder 3 BBs, 3 R; Billy Rummings 1-3, 2 RBI, 3 R; Nick Mistretta 1-3, 2 RBI, R. Top Hughesville hitters: Brady Kimble 1-3, 2 RBI; Lambert 2-4, 2B, 2 R; Stroup 1-2, R; Sean Poust 1-3, 2 RBI, R.
Records: South 10-0, 9-0 HAC-II. Hughesville 5-6, 4-4.