After throwing strike two as the sun set in the seventh inning Friday at Bowman Field, it hit Loyalsock pitcher Phil Krizan.
The previous innings, Krizan pitched like it was any other game. The senior right-hander stayed focused and went batter by batter. But, a strike from victory, the moment finally grabbed hold.
"Before the last out when the fans start cheering is when it really starts setting in that this is the district championship and we're about to win this," Krizan said. "Afterward it's great that we did it, but you're not thinking about it as you go."
Krizan was one of the last people anybody expected entering the season to be closing out a District 4 Class AA championship. Close it he did, though, as Loyalsock defeated Bloomsburg, 7-4 and won its fifth title in seven years. Krizan ending the game and freshman Andrew Malone starting it revealed how surprising this title run has become.
Loyalsock (19-5), which plays Bald Eagle Area Monday at Bowman Field in its state tournament opener, was a favorite entering 2014 to win the district title. But when Duke-bound pitcher Luke Glavin needed surgery to remove a blood clot in his arm and was lost for the year early in the season everything changed. Suddenly, a team that used only Glavin and Datres to win all six postseason games last year was in trouble.
Complicating matters, there were no other pitchers who threw a varsity inning last year since Robbie Klein was injured at the time. The rest of District 4 licked its collective chops.
"People forget that we used two guys last year to win a championship," Loyalsock coach Jeremy Eck said. "When you lose a guy of Luke's caliber who is a gamer and who is going to compete and keep you in a game it takes three or four guys to pick that up, especially the guys that don't have the innings and experience in big games at this stage."
It became all hands on deck and Loyalsock kept finding gems as it won four straight district games, a program-first, and prevailed against one of the toughest fields ever.
Malone and Krizan delivered Friday but players like Jimmy Webb, Caleb Schmucker and Tommy Baggett also delivered big to pick up what had been a reeling team just past the season's midway point. Webb (5-1) is tied for the team lead in wins, freshman Schmucker shined in his first varsity start and Baggett threw a complete-game 1-hitter in his one and only varsity start.
Those three helped Loyalsock win its last seven regular-season games before Malone and Krizan complemented Datres in districts. Datres threw 13 1/3 straight scoreless innings against Montoursville and Hughesville, but Loyalsock could not have captured the crown without Malone and Krizan, two of the most unlikeliest pitching heroes.
Malone won his fourth and fifth games against Wellsboro and Bloomsburg while Krizan closed both games. Malone's emergence really helped Loyalsock come together following an 8-5 start and he has not pitched like a freshman, going 5-1 and striking out 47 in 27 innings. He did not dominate Wellsboro and Bloomsburg, but displayed toughness on days he did not have his best stuff and gave his team a chance to win.
Malone left the bases loaded in the first inning against Bloomsburg, striking out Stanford-bound Colton Hock, hitting a team-best .541, and inducing a grounder to the mound. Loyalsock led just 1-0 at the time and if Malone did not come up big there, if he did not do his best Glavin impersonation, Bloomsburg might own that district championship plaque.
"It's amazing," catcher Evan Moore said. "It's just like last year when we lost a big guy. We find a way to come back."
"Malone could have folded there and he didn't. We were one or two pitches away from being in a 2-3 run hole and he didn't let that happen," Eck said. "For him to get his opportunity and get the momentum back swinging our way was huge."
So was Krizan.
The starting second baseman on last year's state champion, Krizan worked out over the winter but never really thought he would be pitching this year. He was ready, though, when called upon and has been brilliant, closing the Backyard Brawl championship, the Wellsboro first-round playoff game and Friday's championship.
Krizan was the MVP of Friday's game, striking out Hock with the bases loaded after entering in the fourth inning while protecting a 4-3 lead. He grew stronger from there, not allowing an earned run in 3 1/3 innings while striking out four and quieting the top of a strong order.
"Phil is scrappy. He's unbelievable. He's so fun to play with," third baseman Joey Balawajder said. "He will never let us get down and we're going to send him out the right way."
"He pitched a great game," Moore said. "For the amount of pressure that he was facing out there it's definitely one of the best games I've seen him throw."
It was precisely the kind of performance Loyalsock needed. It is exactly the type of clutch performance Loyalsock continues receiving. It might take four pitchers to replace Glavin but they are getting the job done and they have helped Loyalsock arrive right where they want to be come Monday.
"We just come out and do our job, get strikes, let our defense work and get the W," Krizan said. "We had two aces last year and we have one this year with Kyle but we knew we had to step in fill that void at No. 2. Whether it was one person or by committee we had to come out and get the job done any way possible."