BIRDSBORO >> The voices echoed out from the first base dugout at Optimist Field Friday afternoon.
‘They want you!’
‘They’re not afraid of you!’
‘Make them pay!’
Left fielder Devon Garner looked up, smiled then dug into the batters box.
Three pitches after the opposition intentionally walked the batter ahead of him, Garner connected on a no-doubt grand slam deep into the trees in left field.
With one swing of the bat during the third inning, the Daniel Boone senior silenced the nay-sayers while giving his dugout plenty to cheer about. The Blazers rallied for six runs in the inning to claim an eventual 10-3 win over Hershey during the quarterfinal round of the District 3 Class 5A playoffs.
“Bases loaded, no outs,” recalled Garner, “What more could you want in that situation?”
With the win, the top-seeded Blazers secure their place in next month’s PIAA Class 5A playoffs for their first trip to states since the 1997 season. They also continue their run through District 3’s bracket, setting up a meeting with Manheim Central (a 5-0 winner over Lampeter-Strasburg) in next Tuesday’s semifinal round.
Daniel Boone, the team famous for falling short on the biggest stage, had finally done it. After coming up a game short of reaching states the past two seasons, the Blazers had broken through.
The moment had just begun to sink in with head coach Jason McCord.
“Short of the day I got married and when my kids were born, this is the happiest I think I’ve ever been,” he said. “To get at least three more games with this group of kids — it’s hard to put to words. We’ve got everything to look forward to.”
Trailing 3-1 to No. 8 Hershey after two innings, the Blazers started to look like the Boone squad many in the area had come to know.
Not for long, though. Center fielder Matt Stevens opened up the bottom of the third with an infield single to third base before Carson Zuber reached on a bunt to set up Brendan Rivoli’s intentional walk amid a 2-1 count. Garner then delivered the tide-turning grand slam that cleared the 305-foot fence by at least 40 feet to kick-start the Boone offense.
“He gave me a high curveball and I got out ahead and turned on it,” said Garner, who finished 2-for-2 with two runs scored and five RBI.
“Our backs were against the wall and we only had one option — to go forward. We knew that was the game on the line there.”
The Blazers rallied for 10 hits on the game with all nine starting hitters registering a hit. Stevens finished with a hit and two runs scored — including Boone’s opening run on Garner’s sacrifice fly in the first inning — batting out of the leadoff spot. Connor Cleaver and Robert Kurtz each finished with a double.
Daniel Boone starter Zach Brightbill was plenty effective, though he ran into trouble during the top of the second inning. The senior right-hander pitched five complete where he was tagged for three runs (two earned) on three hits and four walks. He also struck out four before giving way to Luke Heffner who pitched the final two innings in relief.
“I didn’t have my best stuff today,” admitted Brightbill. “I came back after the first three innings and finished them off strong, then turned it over to Luke and he did the job for me. Whatever it takes.”
The Blazers turned away lean Hershey starter Ross Good amid their third third-inning outcry.
Early on, Good had the stuff. But down the stretch, the Blazers were better.
“They played better than we did today,” said Hershey interim head coach Al Fricke. “They just did what they needed to do to win — they hit better and did all the little things. A couple of times we needed a hit and we didn’t get it.”
Hershey came up with four hits — two from leadoff man Kris Kremer — as the Trojans did the bulk of their damage with two outs in the top of the second inning. Center fielder Jack Shea ripped a line drive single to right before left fielder Brody Peck ripped one back up the middle. Both would come around to score on a single by Kremer and Christian Corado reaching on an error at shortstop one batter later.
The next inning, another run came across when Patrick Blackall rolled a double play to short, enabling Owen Deflitch to score from third to make it 3-1.
It was time for the Blazers to roll up in a ball and hide. Time for Daniel Boone to call it an early season yet again.
Except this time, they persevered and prospered.
“You saw the senior leadership on display from start to finish,” said McCord of his players. “You’ve got Brightbill gutting it out on the mound, Rivoli, Garner, (Ty) Esenwein, (Joey) Moyer and Heffner coming in — every one of them, everyone in the lineup brought something in this game. They were gonna do whatever it took today to win this game.”