Hughesville baseball closes in on first state berth
As Hughesville coach Casey Waller addressed his players in left field following a 15-6 loss to South Williamsport last month, those standing near home easily could hear him. Saying he was unhappy would be an understatement.
The players were disappointed, too, and the team’s mood reflected that day’s cold, dreary weather. After entering the season with high expectations, Hughesville was 5-6 and its playoff hopes were in jeopardy. The season was teetering on the brink.
Since then Hughesville has lifted itself from its lowest point and has lost just once in 11 games and blanked Athens and South Williamsport, 1-0 and 4-0, respectively in last week’s District 4 Class AA tournament. A season that once seemed lost has become so much more. It suddenly has a chance to become historic.
Hughesville (15-7) has tied the program record for wins and can become the first in program history to reach the state tournament if it wins Tuesday’s district semifinal at Bowman Field against Southern Columbia.
“My senior year, that’s all I could ask for, especially to be back at Bowman. I was there my freshman year and it’ll be pretty cool to get back on there as a senior,” first baseman Jason Stroup said after driving in three runs against South. “We just have to keep chugging. Hughesville has never made it to states and this is the second time we’ve been to Bowman. It’s pretty special.”
Justin Lambert and Sadiq Burkholder threw brilliant two-hit shutouts last week and have won nine games during Hughesville’s turnaround. Still, it has not been a two-man show and that was apparent Friday at South. Playing a team that had outscored it 39-6 in three previous games, Hughesville excelled in all facets, played an error-less game and pounced on nearly every opportunity it created.
It took longer than they had hoped, but the Spartans are performing like they team they knew they were all along.
“We’ve been really coming around as a team right now,” Stroup said. “Our pitchers are doing what they need to do and our hitting is coming around little by little. This (South) game we really pieced it together. It seems like everything came together. It was awesome.”
“At that point we knew if we didn’t start winning we weren’t going to make it to the playoffs and we didn’t want our season to be over early so we all buckled down as a team and the focus came back,” Burkholder said. “We started grinding away every day.”
Hughesville has shut out three good teams during this run and sparked it with a doubleheader sweep of playoff qualifier Central Columbia. It has won close games, big games and blowouts. The bottom line is they have won and everyone has had a hand in it. A team that was 1-4 at one point came together instead of breaking.
Stroup delivered three two-out RBIs against South, Brady Kimble had three hits and Tyler Mitcheltree scored twice. In that initial pivotal Central win, it was players like Jeremiah McCarty and Christian Fish combining for four hits in an eight-inning thriller. Knevin Gouldner hit a walk-off double in a 1-0 win over Danville and Zach Fry had a key double in a 4-1 win at Muncy.
Hughesville has reached the district’s Final 4 the hard way, but it is there. Adversity has made it stronger. Some of the best teams over the last decade have overcome multiple obstacles to flourish, and now Hughesville is trying to follow a similar path.
Waller and all his players are still yelling these days. Now they are doing so in unison as a pumped up, motivated team.
“We’re starting to peak at the right time and I hope we can finish this thing,” Waller said. “These guys have never won districts at Hughesville before so that ought to be enough motivation. We shouldn’t have to say anything to motivate these guys. We get to play at Bowman and we’re going one at a time but ultimately our goal is to win a district championship for Hughesville and hopefully make a run at states.”
After reaching last year’s Class A state final, Montgomery entered 2013 a marked team. The Red Raiders returned a strong core from that record-setting team and expectations were high. Early on, those expectations seemed to be wearing on the Raiders who started 8-7 and seemed to be fading.
At that point, coach Tom Persing went back to an approach that worked so well last year. Forget the record, the opponents and the expectations. It was time to have fun again.
Persing even knew the right place for his players to rediscover what makes the game great.
“I told them I’d have them to go to my son’s T-ball game if we had to and have everybody run around and jump on the ball in the infield,” Persing said. “That’s why you play it. It’s a fun game and you play for the love of the game.”
Montgomery has not lost since. The Raiders (14-7) are back in the district final for a third consecutive year, breaking another program record.
Montgomery earned a spot in Friday’s final against Canton after Alex Worthington threw a five-hitter in Saturday’s 5-1 semifinal win over Sullivan County. No matter the situation, Montgomery appeared relaxed. Players have learned over the last two years that these are not the pressure games.
These are the fun ones. Better to enjoy them than worry.
“The whole thing is to have fun. You have to fun out there,” Worthington said. “We understand we have a big target on our back this year, but we don’t let it get to us. We kept telling ourselves in practice, have fun and play sandlot baseball. We’re just out here having a good time and we seniors don’t want to stop.”
Montgomery has won six straight, beating some outstanding teams during that time, including District 4 Class AA semifinalist Southern Columbia and HAC-III champion Bloomsburg. Saturday it handed Sullivan just its second loss in 18 games. Following an 0-3 start, Sullivan lost only to Montgomery over the final two months.
“I told them we pressed a little bit because we had a lot to live up to at the beginning with us being the state runner-up,” Persing said. “We got together and decided that’s not it. We’re going to go back to having fun and it’s worked.”
Canton appeared to suffer a huge blow in the first inning Saturday against Muncy when lead-off hitter Emmett Watson was hit on the wrist by a pitch and was unable to keep playing. Watson is hitting .468, has driven in 24 runs and can play several positions in the infield and outfield. His absence left an offensive void and had Canton changing positions on the fly.
Still, the Warriors thrived and made no errors in defeating Muncy, 2-1, in an eight-inning district semifinal thriller. Garrett Wesneski and Chase Pepper combined on a two-hitter, third baseman Tanner Machmer threw out a runner trying to score the go-ahead run, and catcher Travis Butcher threw out another runner trying to steal.
The Warriors (19-2) are having one of the best seasons in program history, but Saturday’s win was more about its toughness than its overall ability.
“Watson has been clutch all year and he gets hurt the first at-bat of the game and we had younger kids come in who haven’t played much varsity all year and step up,” said Wesneski, who hit a walk-off double. “I haven’t been on a team like this ever since I played baseball. We’ve gotten to the finals before but nobody puts anyone down. We’re always building each other up and I think that’s a big factor to how we’ve been playing all year and hopefully it carries on.”
Canton is playing in its fourth final in five years. The Warriors have had some outstanding teams over the years, but this one can carve out its own niche if it becomes the program’s first district champion. Montgomery ended that dream a year ago, beating Canton, 4-0, in the final.
Wednesday, Canton gets another shot.
“I told myself and all my teammates I don’t even want Sullivan. I’d rather play Montgomery,” Wesneski said. “We have to pick it up. I know Alex pretty well and he’s a good player so we have to come prepared.”
Jersey Shore earned its third consecutive District 4 Class AAA final appearance Saturday, blanking Shamokin, 2-0. The Bulldogs are going for a third consecutive championship and meet HAC-I rival Midd-West. It will be the fifth time in eight seasons Jersey Shore (16-3) is playing in a district final, another reminder of how it has become one of District 4’s premier programs.
“It’s unbelievable. It (three straight championship appearances) has never happened here,” said center fielder Boone Costa, who helped make the game’s most pivotal play Saturday. “It’s a great feeling. I’m glad I’m playing for this team.”
“We like to keep the tradition going and we know we’re a good ball club,” said pitcher Travis Eiswerth after earning his second save.
Jersey Shore needed to win only one game the past two seasons to capture the championship. The Bulldogs shut out both Selinsgrove and Milton in those games but were held to eight combined hits. Having to go through Shamokin to reach Wednesday’s final could be a blessing.
Instead of looking at a 13-day layoff, Jersey Shore came through in a high-stakes game. It also grew accustomed to playing at Bowman Field and knows what to expect from the field Wednesday.
“Every team is different but based on the history in those games we don’t have many hits. We won all three but I can’t say no to that (a semifinal game),” Jersey Shore coach Matt O’Brien said. “Just to get the kids in a bigger environment and to get that one win under our belt was important.”
Montoursville pitchers Andrew Null and Pierce Ranck showed why they are two of the best around last week, throwing complete-game gems as the Warriors beat Central Columbia and Wellsboro, 5-3 and 2-0, respectively. The Warriors (16-4) earned a spot in Tuesday’s District 4 Class AA semifinals against rival Loyalsock as Null and Ranck allowed just 11 combined hits.
Behind the scenes and behind the mask, though, was someone just as vital to the pitching success. Catcher Cameron Ott calls most of Montoursville’s games. In a day and age when many of the major Division I colleges do not have catchers that call pitches, Ott is handling the staff like a professional. The junior is physically gifted, but is proving just as valuable with his mind.
“You even watch the ACC game of week and see guys looking down at their wrist calling one pitch and going. There’s no shaking the coach off,” Montoursville coach Travis Wurster said. “I think it’s a little easier to learn the game back there this way. If you call a curveball and it gets hit to the left-center gap it’s on you for calling it or the pitcher, it’s not on the coach. It gives them a little more responsibility and a little more accountability.”
Ott missed last season with a shoulder injury and his return has been a huge key to Montoursville’s success. He works especially well with Ranck and Null, but also has helped young pitchers like freshman Dylan Fontenot thrive. He is basically a coach on the field.
Pitching coach Mike Frederick comes up with the game plan before each game and goes over it with Ott who processes the information like a computer. Frederick will call some pitches, but Wurster estimates Ott does it 75 percent of the time. A five-tool player, Ott is receiving collegiate interest. Once his playing days are over, do not be surprised if he makes quite a coach.
“It’s definitely going to help him learn the game so much more doing that,” Wurster said. “If he calls a bad pitch he knows that and he’s accountable for himself and he will say, ‘it’s my fault,’ and get it the next time.”