Montoursville, Loyalsock coaches show the right perspective

They may coach rival teams who played yet another thrill-riding playoff classic in a series that reads better than a Shakespeare play, but Montoursville coach Jeremy Eck and Loyalsock coach Zac Martin shared the same perspective following Montoursville’s 3-2 District 4 Class AAA semifinal victory Friday.

Eck delivered his message before Montoursville mounted its game-winning, eighth-inning rally and Martin his following the gut-punching loss. Both said the right words at the right times and nailed what is so important.

“It’s just walking to plate with a smile on your face and relaxing. I said to them before that last inning, ‘what is the worst thing that is going to happen?'” Eck said. “Maybe you’re not going to get it done and we might lose this game, but the sun is going to rise tomorrow and life is going to move on. This is high school baseball. We want to win and move on and represent our community, but it’s not life and death.”

These games the fun ones. Players spend their offseasons working out, dreaming of playing in big games like these. Yes, the baseball ramifications are big during these playoff games, but that is what makes them such a joy. This is the reward for all that work, all that time in the batting cage, all that time practicing in the gym day after day when the weather will not let teams outside.

Now is not the time to be stressing out. Work hard, do your best and enjoy the moments because they go by fast and one never knows if he or she will experience them again. I do not know if Eck’s talk played a role in Montoursville scoring that game-winning run and earning both a district championship date against Central Columbia as well as a state playoff berth, but I do know how important that message was.

I played high school baseball from 1992-94 at Garnet Valley and was fortunate enough to play on the only district champion in program history 25 years ago. When I look back, I do not regret that we lost to Southern Columbia in the Class AA state quarterfinals. What I regret is not enjoying the ride. What I regret is worrying too much. I was not the most talented player by any stretch, but what I regret is not finding out how good I could be because I put so much pressure on myself.

These are times to remember and now is the time to play hard and focus, but also to embrace the opportunities and have fun. High school baseball goes by in a flash so might as well lay everything out there, live for the moment and play free and loose.

And that leads to Martin who struck the right chords while addressing his heartbroken team moments after its season ended. Those who do not like sports sometimes trivialize their importance, but that is ignorance showing through. When one invests so much time working to grow as an athlete and when one cares so much about that sport, you better believe those sports are important. At the same time, there must be perspective.

Sports teach life lessons and one of the most important yet harsh ones is dealing with disappointment. Sports will humble the greatest of athletes, but those who bounce back and keep moving forward will become better and stronger. Martin let his players know just that.

“We let them know that, first, we are really proud of them,” Martin said. “Obviously this hurts, but whether it’s today or tomorrow, in a week or whatever … at some point you have to pick yourself up off the floor and move on.”

If one can move on knowing he did all he could and embraced the experience than he or she should feel nothing but pride. Maybe that is why Gabe Phillips was so good Friday. The Army-bound senior threw three hitless innings of relief before drawing the game-winning walk.

“Preparation is key and you have to do it with a smile on your face,” Phillips said. “You can’t push it away or have any regrets in the long run. Just leave it all out there.”

Exactly.

PITCHING DELIGHT

Phillips and Logan Ott combined on a six-hitter, while Loyalsock’s Dane Armson and Matt Worth allowed just two hits. Ott did not have his best stuff, but he battled and worked out of some jams, including leaving the bases loaded in the fifth inning when Loyalsock led, 2-1. Ott recorded a three-pitch strikeout, minimizing the damage and giving Montoursville a shot at taking the lead.

Phillips took things from there, throwing as well as he has all season and retiring nine of the 10 batters he faced. The only Lancer who reached base did so off an error and Phillips struck out three, leaving the go-ahead runner at second in the eighth inning.

“I was hitting my spots and throwing with conviction,” Phillips said. “Every pitch has a purpose and it worked out.”

Armson and Worth were outstanding as well. Armson repeatedly came up big in pressure-packed situations, surrendering only a bunt single in 4 2/3 innings and stranding six runners in the first three innings. Worth, only a freshman, put together his fourth brilliant relief outing against Montoursville this season, allowing just an eighth-inning single and forcing extra innings when he recorded a strikeout that left the bases loaded in the seventh.

“Dane threw his heart out. He’s a heck of a competitor and you see his competitive spirit. That’s the grit and the toughness that he has,” Martin said. “Matt as a freshman has been more than we could have imagined. We knew we had something special in Matt and he exceeded all expectations.”

BACK AGAIN

Kyle Caringi threw a dazzling four-hit game Friday as Williamsport edged Delaware Valley and reached its third straight District 2-4 Class 6A championship. The Millionaires (16-4) play Hazleton at 4 p.m., this afternoon at PNC Field in a rematch of last year’s final. Williamsport won that game, 4-3, holding off a late rally and capturing its second straight title.

Some in District 2 thought that might be the end of Williamsport (16-4) since it graduated seven starters, but the Millionaires have come back strong, made huge strides throughout the season and have won 13 of their last 14 games. Caringi continued his late-season brilliance, stifling the Warriors and striking out eight. The St. Bonvaventure-bound senior is 2-0 in his last three starts, allowing just one earned run, eight hits and striking out 26 in 20 1/3 innings.

Brayton Rowello continued providing timely hits. The senior shortstop delivered the game’s key hit in the third inning, smacking a two-run single into center field that gave Williamsport a 2-0 lead. A year after losing all those starters, Williamsport has put together its most wins in a season since 2011 and is right where it wants to be, spending what is becoming its annual Memorial Day destination at PNC Field.

BLOWING SMOKE

St. John Neumann was heating up offensively as it erased a three-run deficit and tied Montgomery 3-3 after three innings in Saturday’s District 4 Class A semifinal. Then Brayden Strouse came in to pitch. Strouse was just what Montgomery needed, overpowering a good team and throwing five no-hit innings as the Red Raiders defeated Neumann, 6-3, in eight innings. Montgomery (13-7) earned its seventh championship appearance since 2005 and will play Millville in Wednesday’s championship at Bowman Field.

Saturday could have been Strouse’s final game, but he would not let Neumann deliver a knockout blow. The senior left-hander retired the first 13 batters he faced and 15 of the 16 he went against. Strouse also struck out nine as Montgomery earned its first trip to the finals since 2015.

“He was just dealing,” Montgomery coach Ross Drick said. “That’s just his mentality. He’s got that killer instinct and when he’s on like that watch out because he’s coming.”

JUST A START?

Neumann concluded its best season ever, shattering the program record for wins and finishing, 15-6. The Knights reached the postseason in consecutive years for the first time ever and return all but one player next season. Neumann made immense progress throughout the season, winning 13 of its last 16 games and showed how far it has come against nemesis Montgomery.

The Raiders immediately led 3-0 in the top of the first inning but Keon Burkholder and Kyle Ferguson pitched outstanding baseball after that and Solomon Grant, Jaiden Cioffi and Burkholder delivered key hits that tied the game, 3-3. Neumann received a taste of success this season and now it wants more. This is a program worth watching moving forward.

“We’re here to stay,” Neumann coach Corey Burkholder said. “Our whole team went out with their boots on and that’s all we ask them to do every day.”

CHAMPIONS COLLIDE

Rare is it that two defending district champions meet in a district final, but that is what happens Tuesday at Bowman Field when South Williamsport and Sayre battle for the District 4 Class AA crown. South captured last year’s AA championship and Sayre won the last two Class A titles. The Redskins defeated Bloomsburg, 8-5, in last week’s semifinals, setting up this unique championship showdown.

Dr. Masse’s Top Five

1. Williamsport (16-4)

2. Montoursville (18-3)

3. Central Mountain (12-6)

4. South Williamsport (15-4)

5. Montgomery (13-7)

Players of the Week

Kyle Caringi, Williamsport and Kalen Guyer, Montgomery

In addition to pitching well, Caringi also has been locked in offensively and went 2 for 3 against Delaware Valley. It was the sixth straight game in which Caringi produced at least two hits. While Strouse dominated on the mound, Guyer produced two of the game’s biggest hits. The senior shortstop went 3 for 5 with three RBIs. His first-inning, two-run single gave Montgomery a 3-0 lead and his two-out, eighth-inning RBI single provided a valuable insurance run, giving Montgomery a 6-3 lead.

Chris Masse may be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse.

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