Canton rides defense to title game

BLOOMSBURG – As he crossed first base, Mike Viera ripped the helmet off his head and screamed a word not meant for children’s ears. It was the Old Forge third baseman’s release of six innings of built up frustration.

He had just grounded into the most routine of 1-6-3 double plays, seemingly killing a Blue Devils rally before it ever got started in the sixth inning of a 2-0 game Tuesday afternoon. In a microcosm of the day, Old Forge could do no right offensively. Hit the ball hard and someone from Canton made an incredible play. Put the ball in play and put some pressure on Canton’s defense and the Warriors were up to the challenge.

So when Viera was thrown out at first base, his expletive spoke volumes. Canton is playing in the Class A state championship game Friday morning at Penn State in large part because of what it does while in the field, and not necessarily at the plate.

The Warriors have two hard-throwing right-handers which have carried them to the school’s first appearance in the PIAA baseball finals. And behind them is a defense which isn’t surprised by defensive perfection. Defensive perfection is expected.

“We did make a couple boo-boos,” Canton head coach Bob Rockwell said. “They could have played a little bit better. But I’ll take it.”

Tough critic.

But its those expectations which have helped carry Canton into the middle of June as one of eight high school baseball teams in Pennsylvania still playing.

“Our defense is the key,” Warriors pitcher/third baseman Garrett Wesneski said Tuesday. “We don’t make many errors. We’re just playing well as a team and that’s all you can do.”

Canton has averaged just one error per game in its five playoff games, its opponents have committed 11. The frustration from Old Forge seemed to grow to a crescendo inning after inning at Bloomsburg University.

Derek Drasba made the right turn at first base toward the Blue Devils’ dugout after Canton second baseman Trevor Route made a brilliant play up the middle for an out in the second inning. As he took the first steps with his head down, his first-base coach patted him on the head and said, “There’s nothing you can do, he made a great play.”

The combination of Chase Pepper’s pitching (six strikeouts) and the Warriors’ defense kept Old Forge hitless until the sixth inning. And even the first hit for the Blue Devils wasn’t a gimme because Canton shortstop Wes Moore made a diving stop on a grounder up the middle and a strong throw to first. Old Forge’s Paul Papi was called safe on the play, but the throw appeared to be in time.

Four pitches later, Viera grounded into the ill-fated double play.

“We’re all athletic and we all can play baseball. We have a good instinct for the game,” Moore said. “I think it helps (the pitchers) feel more confident that all the pressure isn’t on them. They have players behind them that can help.”

It’s an aspect of the game Canton has put an emphasis on since Day 1. As brilliant a performance as it was for the Warriors on Tuesday, it’s become the norm.

Assistant coach Lyle Wesneski has helped mold a defense which handles the routine chances with ease and can make a couple spectacular plays when necessary. And on a day where the wind was gusting out to center field and the infield grass more closely resembled the fescue at the British Open, the disciplined defense shined.

“It was tough during warm-ups, I bobbled a couple. But I stuck with it and I did my best and it worked out in the end,” Route said. “Defense is a big deal, especially to coach Wes.”

“It’s a lot of pressure on us, but we practice it a lot,” Moore said. “We know that defense wins championships and that’s what we’re going for now.”