Overachieving Mounties proved doubters wrong

PINE GROVE — Dom Harding never listened when others told him left-handers cannot catch.

That is what the South Williamsport catcher Harding enjoys doing and that is what he has done since Little League. And there Harding was Tuesday afternoon at Walter Stump Stadium, using his left arm to throw out the two Devon Prep runners who tried stealing against him. Each throw was perfect and neither call was difficult.

“When we were playing catch before the game I told Tripp (Breen) I was feeling really loose. I felt like I was throwing the hardest I have all season,” Harding said. “Being a left-handed catcher you don’t see that very often. It’s fun trying to buck the odds and show what I can do.”

Harding defying the odds and doing his thing sheds some light on what made South’s baseball team so good this season. The Mounties (18-5) enjoyed the best season in its decorated program’s history, repeating for the first time as District 4 champions and winning the program’s first state tournament games.

That historic run ended yesterday when Devon Prep defeated South, 3-1, in the Class AA Eastern Region final. What a run it was. The Mounties feature one future Division I player (Breen) and many will not play at all at the next level.

But South never listened to those who said it could not make a run at a state championship. It never worried about how strong the opponent might be. The Mounties just kept grinding, fighting and winning. They nearly went all the way, too.

That is why yesterday’s loss hurt so much. Others may have doubted it, but South always believed. Up until the final strike was delivered, the Mounties thought they would be playing Friday’s state final. This was an entire team which shared Harding’s mindset. Who cares what others say? The Mounties might not have won their coveted state championship, but they sure proved a whole lot. Now they take their place among the best teams that have ever played any sport at South.

“We all cried a little. We put so much into it and worked so hard. We didn’t believe we overachieved, but we overachieved,” South coach Smokey Stover said. “They believed everything we were telling them and I told them the truth. They believed we could win and I believed we could win and that’s why we’re so heartbroken. If they didn’t believe, it wouldn’t hurt as much. They were confident. They played hard and what a great group of leaders. Every kid was great. You never heard any complaining. All year long … it was awesome.”

South was one of only two Class AA teams playing in the HAC-III and yet one a share of its first league championship since 2012. The Mounties then edged Sayre, 2-1, and repeated for the first time. An 11-0 win against District 2 champion Blue Ridge broke that state tournament victory drought and South followed it up with a thrilling 2-1 win over District 11 champion Schuylkill Haven.

At times, it looked like South would continue this remarkable journey and carry it all the way to Penn State. Breen threw a dazzling four-hitter and retired 12 straight at one point. Luke Winner hit a second-inning double, scored on a wild pitch and tied the game, 1-1, in the second inning before South put the first two runners on in the fourth and threatened to take the lead. Devon Prep pitcher Andrew Czachor, however, retired the last 12 Mounties after entering in the fourth inning, striking out nine and dashing South’s state title dreams.

Make no mistake, this was not South losing the game. Devon Prep won it. The Mounties played well, played hard and fought hard. They simply ran into another fabulous team that played a great game. South can regret not winning, any athlete in that position would. But the Mounties cannot, and should not, regret anything else because they did everything they possibly could trying to make it happen.

“Everybody was out there giving everything they’ve got. Everybody did what they could,” Breen said. “You just give them (Devon Prep) props. That was a good game and that was a good baseball team. They have great pitchers and they did the job.”

South did quite a job all season. The Mounties won their first district title since 2002 a year ago, but repeating that success was far from a guarantee. South lost some of its best hitters, including its Nos. 2-4 hitters. They faced a daunting schedule and other Class AA teams were aiming to take it down.

The Mounties welcomed all challengers, jelled and grew as the season continued and played their best baseball when it mattered most. This was a team defined as much by its toughness as its talent. Time after time, South was locked in close games and time after time it won.

Entering the state semifinals, South had won six straight one-run games. It had won nine consecutive games decided by one or two runs. The Mounties won with walkoff hits, dominant pitching and smart baserunning. That margin of error so often was slim, but South kept responding and different players kept shining through in those most pressure-packed moments. A lesser team would have caved a long time ago, but this scrappy, hard-nosed team just kept winning and moving on.

The winning was nice, but that fighting spirit this team displayed was what really captivated its community. South drew good crowds for regular-season games and huge crowds for playoff contests. A split second after the final out was recorded yesterday, that army of blue-clad fans rose and gave a loud ovation. Call it a thank you for a hard job that was well done.

“It would have been great to get to the final game, but fourth in the state is pretty good,” Harding said. “It was amazing. It’s a once in a lifetime thing to play in front of this many people and I feel like it will make us better.”

“We appreciate them so much,” Breen said. “Having all the support, having people driving through all the traffic and going to every game, taking off work … it’s amazing. It’s been phenomenal.”

The season is over, but 2019 South’s legacy is secure. South has had some super teams over the years. Heck, the program has made 32 straight playoff appearances. The Mounties have had more talented teams, but none that was tougher.

And none that was better.

South let no team put restrictions on it. What once seemed like an impossible dream nearly became reality. A state championship seems more tangible and if that happens in the future, it will be this South team that started showing everyone who wears the Blue and White what is possible when talent, drive, belief and toughness come together.

“It’s a tough loss right now but it was an amazing run with these guys,” Breen said. “I love every single one of them and the coaches. I couldn’t ask for a better team, a better family to be on.”

“It’s never happened in the history of the school so they should reflect on that,” Stover said. “Probably not tomorrow, maybe not a week from now, but someday it’s going to set in and they’re going to say, ‘wow, we had a great year.’ The whole town really rallied behind the team and it really was a great run.”

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

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