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Decade’s best No. 10: Bender’s catch saved game for Warrior Run in 2016 baseball playoffs

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series looking back at the Top 10 high school baseball teams, coaches, games and players from the last decade.

Warrior Run had not reached a district championship since 1999. And when Alex Welch launched a towering blast deep into left field, the Defenders were up against a wall trying to end that drought.

Literally.

At nearly any field besides cavernous Bowman Field, Welch would have had a fifth-inning, game-tying, three-run home run and Hughesville’s momentum might have become to strong to stop in this 2015 District 4 Class AA semifinal. But Warrior Run left fielder Teddy Bender saw the ball off the bat well and started sprinting backward. He had no more room to run as he reached the wall, extending his arm up high and catching the blast while crashing into it.

Hughesville never threatened again as reliever Luke Burrows retired all six batters he faced and preserved a thrilling victory, 11-8. The Defenders reached the district final for the first time in 16 years, rallying from a three-run, third-inning deficit, going on an offensive rampage against a great pitching staff and continuing a resurgence that began a year earlier.

If it took running into a wall to achieve all that, Bender and his teammates were more than willing.

“I thought it might be going out. I felt the track there and was reaching or the wall and it was right away. I caught the ball right as I hit the wall. It was intense,” Bender said after going 2 for 4 with a run. “At Bowman Field, there’s nothing better than a catch like that against the wall.”

Few District 4 teams had made a turnaround better than Warrior Run over the past two seasons. The Defenders suffered through 10 straight losing seasons before making a stunning 12-win improvement in 2015, going 15-7 and reaching the district semifinals. The Defenders lost a good group of seniors to graduation, but kept surging forward in 2016, capturing the HAC-III championship by overcoming a six-run deficit and beating Muncy, 13-11. Warrior Run set a program record for 18 wins, finishing 18-5 after losing to Mansfield in the district final.

Warrior Run had won five straight games since losing to Hughesville 5-0 just 13 days earlier. The Defenders were peaking at the right time, clobbered South Williamsport, 17-4, in the quarterfinals and had scored 52 runs in their last four games.

Hughesville was rolling as well. The Spartans matched the program record for wins and entered the semifinals 18-3, winning seven straight games. Hughesville outscored its previous six opponents, 51-9, and closed the regular season with a 5-0 victory over District 4 Class AAA champion Jersey Shore before blasting Troy, 10-0, in the quarterfinals.

Hughesville’s pitching had been sensational down the stretch, but Warrior Run immediately showed the rematch would not be the first game, scoring two runs in the top of the first. The Defenders would pound out 12 hits and draw nine walks with Gage Anzulavich, Collin Rothfus, Noah Showers and Michael Muffly all collecting two hits each.

Hughesville, however, grabbed the lead in the first inning when Ryan McClain belted a three-run double. When Zack Campbell and Zach Fry added RBIs an inning later and Hughesville went up 5-2 it started feeling like the Spartans were in control, especially with their deep pitching.

Instead, like it had done against Muncy, Warrior Run came storming back. Anzulavich and Rothfuss (4 RBIs) hit RBI singles in the third before Warrior Run erupted for five fourth-inning runs and took a 9-5 lead it would not relinquish. Showers hit a go-ahead two-run double and Rothfuss followed with a two-run single, giving him nine RBIs in two playoff games.

“We gave up 11 runs in one inning to Muncy and won, so when we were down 5-2 I said, ‘We’ve been here before. We’re right where we want to be,” Warrior Run coach Harold Raup said. “We’ve been here, we’ve done that and they came right back and battled. I don’t even know what to say I’m so proud of them.”

Hughesville scored twice in the bottom of the fourth, but Anzulavich who earned the win in relief, left the bases loaded. A wild pitch and Burrows sacrifice fly again made it a four-run game in the fifth before Campbell hit a two-out RBI double and cut it to 11-8. It looked like Welch might tie it with a home run or at least make it a one-run game two batters later before Bender made the catch of his life.

“I was real nervous there, but Teddy made a heck of a catch,” Raup said. “That really helped us win the game. That saved it right there and got us out o that inning.”

Burrows took care of the rest and Warrior Run was district-final bound for just the second time in program history. It was a season and a victory few outside the dugout thought possible and that made it even sweeter.

“Everyone is on fire and doing what they need to do,” Bender said. “We wanted to prove to everyone we’re here and we’re real.”

This was the final game for coach Casey Waller at Hughesville. He had led the Spartans to the best six-year run in program history, one that included twice breaking the program record for wins, as well as its first District 4 championship and a HAC-II title and Backyard Brawl crown. Warrior Run needed to play an outstanding game to deny Waller his sixth district finals appearance as a coach and the Defenders produced it.

“Hughesville is a great team. They proved it all year and they have the best coach in the area by far with Casey,” Raup said. “He’s a great coach and for us to beat that team, it was a great job by these guys. I take my hat off to every one of them.”

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