Future has plenty of promise for Central Mountain’s baseball program

TIM WEIGHT/Special to the Sun-Gazette Central Mountain players hug and talk with each other on the infield at Altoona after losing to Bethel Park, 1-0, in nine innings of the PIAA Class 5A semifinals on Monday.

Central Mountain coaches embraced their senior players and thanked them following Monday’s heartbreaking 1-0, nine-inning Class 5A state semifinal loss against Bethel Park. As they did so, the underclassmen walked toward the dugout as the sun started setting in the distance.

The scene spoke volumes. As one set of great players walked into the sunset after helping Central Mountain enjoy one of its best seasons ever, the returning players packed up their equipment while looking toward the future. And after Central Mountain came closer than ever to reaching a state championship, that future could be mighty bright.

“We just said to the young guys out in the huddle that we hope they were taking notes and watching these guys and what they do to prepare to consistently play well. There’s no substitute for that,” Central Mountain coach Mike Kramer said. “There’s a good young group that’s in this program and we’re looking forward to them coming up through and continuing the success that we’ve had.”

Central Mountain had as much success as its ever had this past season. The Wildcats finished 18-6, captured a district championship for a third straight year and reached the state semifinals for just the second time in program history. Central Mountain did all this after a 1-3 start, winning 17 of 19 games before coming so close to earning a spot at Penn State’s Medlar Field.

The Wildcats romped past their first three playoff opponents, outscoring them, 31-0, beat two WPIAL opponents in states and set a standard for future teams. Central Mountain did not win the state’s ultimate prize but it sure achieved a lot. And just as impressive as what Central Mountain accomplished was how it did so.

“Hat’s off to everybody, to the coaches, to the players, to the fans to everyone. We started out rough at 1-3 early in the year and then we win 17 of our last 19 games and made it all the way to the state semis,” senior Aidan Major said after throwing eight shutout innings Monday. “I can’t say enough about this team and the way we battle and the will we have to keep going all season. There’s not another baseball team I’d ever want to do it with.”

“I can’t say enough good things about them,” Bethel Park coach Pat Zehnder said. “They play the right way. It was an honor to be able to compete against them.”

Central Mountain did not lose Monday’s game either. Bethel Park won it. Time after time, Central Mountain players roped two-out balls that looked like they would produce two-out runs.

Twice right fielder Jason Nuttridge made spectacular diving catches and center fielder Eric Andrus a terrific running catch on a Peyton Johnson laser hit toward the warning track. Gabe Johnson nearly put Central Mountain up 1-0 in the ninth inning when he hit a blooper into no-man’s land down the left field line. Instead, shortstop David Kessler made a brilliant running catch, seemingly covering half the earth to get there.

It was not that the Wildcats failed in doing their job. It was just Bethel Park playing defense about as well as any high school team can play it. If they do not make just one of those plays, Central Mountain likely would be playing Thursday.

“They played solid defensively. We barreled a lot of baseballs, some in the gaps and they made plays on them,” Kramer said. “A couple feet one way or another could have made the difference in this game. We had runners on and we hit the ball solid and it just didn’t work.”

“The defense helps provide the confidence in our pitchers to be able to pound the zone but they played even better than they usually play today,” Zehnder said. “Thankfully, our guys were able to rise to the occasion and catch some balls that if they don’t catch we’re down multiple runs several times.”

It took that Herculean defensive effort to finally end Central Mountain’s season. Still, the Wildcats nearly reached the summit. Six senior starters helped them reach those lofty heights, including Major and catcher Cy Probst who will play at West Virginia and Maine, respectively, next spring. Those seniors leave a huge void but Central Mountain has become a perennial winner. The names change, but the results do not and the underclassmen could be ready to take flight next spring.

Chase Brush and Cru Stover provided excellent pitching all season and Stover also hit .353. First baseman Gabe Johnson hit .361, surging down the stretch and playing excellent defense. Right fielder Cayde McCloskey belted five doubles and several others have shown bright flashes when called upon. The cupboard is far from bare and these players are workers so a strong foundation is in place.

“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of kids and the way they battled and they fought. They had to face a lot of adversity this year and overcome it and it goes well beyond the field,” Kramer said. “The character of this group is amazing. I’m very happy to be a part of it and am just sad to see it end. Our senior class did an outstanding job and they definitely left this program better than when what it was when they came in.”

Now they have passed the baton and the returning Wildcats will try finishing what the seniors helped start.


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