South Williamsport baseball wins a different way

Rarely do numbers tell the entire sports story.

Look at those the South Williamsport baseball team has produced in 2019 and that point again becomes obvious. The Mounties do not feature eye-popping statistics and opponents looking at those numbers likely will not be intimidated.

But look at where these Mounties are now. They are one of only four Class AA teams still playing and will compete in today’s state semifinals against Devon Prep at Pine Grove’s Walter Stump Stadium. The only numbers that matter in sports are wins and South has many.

And maybe the best way to explain South’s success is this: They have a lot of hard-fought, big wins. These Mounties are good baseball players, but equally important, they are fighters.

Maybe South does not overwhelm an opponent, but it has beaten 18 good teams, found ways to win games that would have eluded lesser squads and is a victory from reaching its first state final. The Mounties (18-4) already have made history with their last three victories, repeating as district champions for the first time and winning the first two state tournament games in program history.

There is no statistic that measures heart. If there was, South would be among the state’s leaders.

“My whole goal when I came here was to win a state title. I knew we didn’t have the athletes, but we kept getting better and better,” South coach Smokey Stover said. “We don’t have the athletes that will hit the ball all over the place, but they’re doing enough to win. These kids will battle.”

And they will never back down, nor will they give up.

South has made a living winning close games this season. The Mounties have won six straight one-run contests and are 9-1 in games decided by two runs or fewer. South has won virtually every way, via stellar pitching, excellent defense and timely hitting. Tripp Breen has 11 wins, Logan Burkett earned the save in the state quarterfinals and Luke Winner has made both a game-winning and game-changing throw. Winner and shortstop Pete Sinibaldi also have produced walkoff hits.

The Mounties have earned their success the hard way. Three of their last four contests have been determined by a run, including both the district final and last Thursday’s 2-1 state quarterfinal win against Schuylkill Haven. Hunter Finn and Dom Harding provided the game-tying hit and game-winning sacrifice fly in a comeback regular-season finale against North Penn-Mansfield. Sinibaldi’s walkoff hit vaulted South to a 2-1 district championship win against Sayre. Breen and Burkett combined on a two-hitter against Schuylkill Valley with Burkett leaving the tying runner on third and ending the game with a strikeout.

“We’ve been in these tight games all year,” Burkett said. “When we get in them like we were (Thursday) we keep our heads. We battled and stayed in there.”

“We’re used to playing those one-run games all year and I told (South athletic director) Rob (Houseknecht) to beef up the schedule in the winter so it could help us,” Stover said. “I said to get some bigger schools on there because it will get us ready.”

Looking back maybe it was fitting that South opened its season with a 1-0 loss against Hughesville. It stands out now because that March game is the only one-run loss South has suffered. It also made South stronger. The Mounties did not pout about the loss. They just went back to work, kept things in perspective and waited to pounce on the next opportunity.

It has remained that way all year with South winning a 2-1 thriller against Hughesville in the rematch, beating Bloomsburg on Winner’s walkoff home run, blanking Williamsport, 1-0 at the Backyard Brawl and capturing the district title in dramatic fashion.

No doubt, South would love making things easier on itself and its loyal fans but it also recognizes how tough sports, especially one as unpredictable as baseball, can be. The Mounties knew from competing against nearly all Class AAA teams in the HAC-III that the season would be defined by its ability to excel in close games. The Mounties aced that test, winning a share of their first league title since 2012. Unsatisfied, the Mounties have kept going and going and …

“Every practice we work so hard and we have a lot of fun,” Winner said. “We’ve got the speaker jamming every practice, but everyone is just working. Everyone is so determined to try and get that state championship.”

That was Stover’s mission when he arrived in 2017. This a tradition-laden program that has not missed the postseason since 1988. Still, state-level success remained elusive until this season. Part of it is talent. Part of it is resourcefulness. Part of it is having players who are tougher than a two-dollar steak. But a lot of it also is about believing.

Capturing a state championship is the ultimate high school dream. In order to live that dream one has to believe it is tangible, not something that is far-fetched. When the season started, there probably were not a lot of people labeling South a state title contender. The players and coaches believed they were, however, and that is all that mattered.

Obviously, Devon Prep presents an immense challenge today. South has embraced challenges all season so these first 22 games really have been about getting ready for today’s contest. The Mounties have no problem getting dirty, going all-out and doing whatever it takes to try and keep this historic journey going.

That is who this team is. It is a blue-collar group of players who put on their hard hats, go to work every day and leave a bit of themselves on the field each time. Whether South reaches the state final or not will be determined today. I do not know who will win, but I do know South will battle, scrap and give all it can pursuing its goal.

One of my favorite all-time movie lines is delivered by Matthew McConaughey when he portrays Marshall football coach Jack Lengyel:

“When you take that field today, you’ve gotta lay that heart on the line, men. From the souls of your feet, with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that, we cannot lose. We may be behind on the scoreboard at the end of the game, but if you play like that we cannot be defeated.”

That is both a sports and life lesson. And if one looks at this way, South is undefeated this season.

People like winners and that is one reason South has attracted such a large following throughout its playoff run. Still, there is more to it than that. They also like hard-working groups. They like people who they believe perfectly represent their community.

“I’m excited for the whole town. So many people are coming to the games. Half of South Side was there (Thursday). I don’t know how so many people got off work,” Stover said. “The crowd was great. This team is like a family and this whole town is like a family and it’s a lot of fun.”

Really, that is what today is about. Yes, the winner reaches the state championship, but playing in a game like this is the reward for all the hard work put in since practices began early last March. The Mounties are among the select few high school baseball players who will ever get to experience playing in a game like this. Heck, there are professional baseball players who might dominate individually but never reach the collegiate or Major League equivalent of this stage,

This is a time to savor, a time to remember, a time to embrace. This is a time to empty the barrel, work hard, play loose, enjoy the moment and have no regrets.

That should not be a problem either. That is exactly what South’s band of fighters have done all season.

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

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