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Central Mountain gained big-game experience in 2016 LL regional

SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Keystone Little League’s Cy Probst delivers a pitch during the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Regional in Bristol, Conn.

Central Mountain athletes will play their biggest high school baseball game yet today. The Wildcats are playing in the Class AAAAA semifinals at Altoona’s PNG Field against Bethel Park at 3 p.m.

The winner reaches the state championship game. That is the game just about any high school player who laces up his cleats dreams about competing in. But while Central Mountain is playing in the Final 4, its players sure know a lot about big games.

Six of them already played in front of millions watching them worldwide. At age 12.

Cayde McCloskey, Blade Myers, Cy Probst, Aidan Major, Kaden Falls and Nate Helms all played on the 2016 Keystone Little League state championship team which took second at the Mid-Atlantic Regional and was a victory away from competing in the Little League World Series. Those players helped Keystone win four regional games. The team which beat it in the regional final, Endwell, New York, captured the world championship just a couple weeks later in South Williamsport.

Obviously the game will be played on the field, but having already played in front of a worldwide audience certainly gives the Wildcats plenty of big game experience.

“We’ve played in front millions and millions of people on television. It’s like going to another game now,” Major said. “We’re able to block the crowd out that’s at the stadium and focus on the battle and on getting our job done that day.”

Those who were not on that 2016 Keystone team also have played in many big games at various levels. So while this high school situation might be a new one, it feels quite familiar. The moment is not too big because players have felt ones like them before.

And being able to focus on just the game pays dividends. It certainly has throughout the playoffs with Central Mountain (18-5) outscoring four opponents, 34-2. The Wildcats shut out three consecutive postseason teams, including in the district final at PNG Field, before winning a 3-2 state quarterfinal thriller Thursday against West Allegheny.

“They have fun but they know that when you’re out on the field it’s a baseball game. It’s focus on what you can do next and don’t let the moment get the best of you and control what you can control,” Central Mountain coach Mike Kramer said. “Today’s game is no different than the first game of the season. You step into the box, you see a baseball coming at you and you take a good swing. You see a baseball coming at you, you field it and throw it. You keep that focus and stay relaxed and in control.”

These players have done that for years and know its value. Along the way, they have grown closer and become one unit. Nearly every Wildcat has played together since their baseball journeys began in T-Ball, so they know each other like family.

The bonus is that those players often have spent nearly entire summers together playing baseball, making various tournament runs. They can anticipate each others’ moves and have developed a trust and confidence which have revealed themselves with Central Mountain winning 17 of its last 19 games.

So even after losing last year’s high school season to COVID-19, Central Mountain has been able to quickly jell. Past experiences also have taught them how to view postseason games. And that means looking at them the same as any other.

“Every game we’ve played with each other we’ve grown closer and closer together,” Probst said. “These last two games we’ve played no differently than the other games this season. We’re just so comfortable and relaxed. Our team chemistry is greater than it ever has been before. Being in playoffs, we don’t try to focus on that too much. We just feel blessed with the opportunity to play more and more baseball games with each other as a whole.”

As a whole, Central Mountain has made tremendous strides this season, rallying from a 1-3 start. Different players have produced at key times, seven players are hitting above .320, and six pitchers are averaging more than a strikeout per game.

A prime example of what has made Central Mountain so good came in an early-season win against Jersey Shore. Helms made his first start that day and slammed a game-changing three-run double in his first at-bat. It was his first scholastic start but neither that, nor the early situation, rattled him. He had been there before and like his teammates, he knew how to respond.

“These guys have had success at the Little League level and they have played a lot of baseball together. We have some younger kids mixed in with them and they’ve all been stepping up,” Kramer said. “It’s my job to keep them focused and it’s very easy to do that because they already do that themselves.”

As focused as Central Mountain is, do not think it fails to grasp what is happening. Reaching a Final 4 in any sport is difficult, and that goes double in baseball, which is one of the most unpredictable sports. Driving that home, Central Mountain is a decorated program which has won three consecutive district championships. But this is its first state semifinal since 2008.

“To be in the Final 4 is something that as any athlete in any sport, you dream of. To live this out is pretty awesome,” Major said. “Losing last year and losing a team that everyone thought could get to states and make a deep run in states hurt. For us to carry on that expectation means just as much to each and every one of us as anything we’ve done before.”

What Central Mountain has done before helps in its current quest. Wildcat players know how fun this ride is and how fondly they will look back at memories made this spring. They are enjoying the good times so few high school athletes get to achieve.

But they also are laser-focused. That formula has worked so well in the past and there is no way Central Mountain is changing it now.

“We have 2-3 days between each game to enjoy the moment and take it all in, but when it comes to our next game, from the moment we wake up we are locked in,” Major said. “Our job is focusing on the day and getting seven innings of baseball in and playing the best we can. We are able to enjoy the moment, but be focused on the job ahead.”

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