South’s Breen has been at his best in pressure-packed situations

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette South Williamsport’s Ryan Rishcoff, left, gives teammate Tripp Breen, right, a fist bump during the PIAA Class AA quarterfinals at Central Columbia against Schuylkill Haven.

When he pitched his first state playoff game against Marian Catholic two years ago, Tripp Breen felt like his insides would soon burst.

When Breen took the mound for Thursday’s Class AA state quarterfinal against Schuylkill Haven, he was relaxed, confident and determined. He then threw 6 1/3 brilliant innings of two-hit baseball as South Williamsport won, 2-1, and reached the state semifinals for the first time in program history. South (18-4) plays District 12 champion Devon Prep in that Final Four showdown Monday at Pine Grove.

Breen’s composure stands in stark contrast to where he was two years ago and even last year. So does the way he meshes with his teammates and provides quality leadership. Good pitching has been a constant, but it is the evolution of Breen as a young man which has most impressed coach Smokey Stover. And, ultimately, that might be the difference between South playing for a state final berth Monday instead of turning in its uniforms.

“He’s changed his whole demeanor. He’s really taken over this team. I’m really proud of his leadership more than his pitching,” Stover said earlier this year. “He’s changed his whole personality.”

Breen enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore, posting a 2.10 ERA and striking out nearly a batter per inning, but he also had a hard-luck 3-5 record. He was nervous before that state playoff opener against Marian Catholic, but pitched an outstanding game in a 2-1 defeat. Breen became one of the district’s premier pitchers last year, going 10-4 with a 1.35 ERA and 108 strikeouts as South won its first district championship since 2002.

As good as he was, it felt like something might be missing. Breen was still not regarded as a team leader. He might become flustered if a few things went wrong.

But those days are long gone. Breen has elevated both his performance and his maturity, making his senior season one of the best in South history. The St. Bonaventure-bound pitcher has been as good mentoring and guiding as he has been throwing. He is a stone-cold pitcher who maintains the same expression no matter the situation, who repeatedly has been at his best in the most pressure-packed situations and who has helped make his teammates better.

“You can’t let the pressure get to you. Once it gets to you it’s all over,” Breen said. “I love the pressure.”

“Tripp has just matured so much. He was all about himself as a sophomore and then last year he was a little too hard on the guys, but now it’s just one molded team. It’s just awesome,” Stover said. “Tripp is just a great kid. He and I have become really close. He’s just changed completely. It’s a complete 180.”

Breen’s pitching record has experienced a dramatic shift as well. He is 11-1 this season and has won his last 11 starts. His only loss came in a 1-0 season-opening defeat at Hughesville. Breen has a career-best 0.69 and 128 strikeouts in 71 innings, never allowing more than two runs in a start.

The bigger the games, the better Breen has pitched. He is 3-0 this postseason, throwing a four-hit complete game in a 2-1 district championship win against Sayre and three no-hit innings in an 11-0, five-inning state tournament win against Blue Ridge. He then took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against 2018 state semifinalist Schuylkill Haven. South wanted more than the two runs it generated in the first two innings last Thursday, but Breen made it hold up, overwhelming a strong offense, striking out 13 and fanning at least two batters in five different innings.

Afterward, Breen was quick to thank his defense and his teammates. It has been that way all year, Breen always making sure the public understands how valuable everyone wearing the South uniform is.

“I was feeling great, but you can’t do it without your fielders,” Breen said. “They did a lot of the work. I knew when it was hit it was going to get caught. I was just throwing.”

He was throwing quite well. Breen struck out seven of the first nine batters he faced and baffled a team that cruised through District 11 and its first-round state tournament game. The Hurricanes kept the pressure on as Jake Houtz threw a two-hitter, but Breen embraced his latest big moment and owned it. Breen again showed his trademark toughness as well.

He gave up a leadoff seventh-inning single and then slipped why trying to field a swinging bunt as Schuylkill Haven put two runners on with no outs. This situation might have flustered Breen in the past, but no more. He displayed his short-term memory, focused on the task and and struck out then next batter.

Stover thought Breen had reached his pitch limit on that 101st pitch, but in playoffs it is increased to 105. Logan Burkett replaced Breen and recorded the final two outs as South won its latest thriller and continued captivating its community.

“Tripp pitched a fabulous game. You can’t ask for more than that,” Burkett said. “Tripp has been pitching out of his mind this year.”

He usually has done it when the margin for error has been slim and none. The right-hander has recorded five wins when South has scored two or fewer runs. He threw complete games in 1-0 victories against Bloomsburg and Williamsport. Three times he has won 2-1 decisions, including twice this postseason.

Both South and Breen would love producing more runs and that remains a goal. At the same time, Breen does not worry about it when pitching. He controls what he can control and only focuses on the given task. He looks like a quarterback orchestrating things while doing so, pointing in different directions while lining up the defense.

Breen started becoming a great pitcher two years ago. Now he is a coach on the field. Now he is the ultimate teammate, the ideal leader. It has been quite a turnaround, quite a journey.

And Breen is loving it all.

“I can’t even explain it. I’m at a loss for words,” Breen said. “Final Four … that’s crazy. I love these guys. It’s been awesome.”

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