UPPER PROVIDENCE >> It’s pretty much a given than every team in the state baseball playoffs has good pitching and plays good defense.
It’s the teams that can hit the ball consistently that usually find a way to advance. All season, Upper Moreland relied on really good pitching, solid defense and a gritty but low-scoring offense to advance into the state quarterfinals.
There, the Golden Bears ran into a team like them, only one that’s been hitting the cover off the ball for a few weeks.
Upper Moreland’s season came to an end in a 5-2 loss to Whitehall at Spring-Ford High School in the PIAA 5A quarterfinals Thursday. The Zephyrs smashed 10 hits and scored in four of the six innings they batted to bring an end to the standout careers of UM’s nine seniors.
“We were hitting the ball, just right to them unfortunately but they’re a really good baseball team,” Bears head coach Dan Heiland said. “They hit the ball tonight, they finished with 10 hits and I said to my assistant coach, you give yourself a lot of room to win a lot of baseball games when you can score at least one run in almost every single inning.”
Upper Moreland right-hander Tommy Jacob got the start on the mound and pitched a good game. He just ran into a hot-hitting team that really smoked the ball. Of the 10 Zephyr hits, the only one that wasn’t hit with a lot force was the first.
Matt Dobeck’s two-out slap bunt in the first inning turned into a run after Alex Bruneio won a nine-pitch at-bat with an RBI triple just inside the left field line. The first three Whitehall runs all came with two outs as the Zephyr hitters made Jacob work hard for outs, extending counts and fouling off a lot of pitches.
“That’s a great point, they weren’t up there just swinging at first pitches, they worked the counts,” Heiland said. “They kept fouling things off and battling until they got the pitch they could drive and get on base.”
Whitehall starter Zach Gilbert, a left-hander, kept the Upper Moreland offense quiet for five innings, getting some help from his defense and from aggressive Golden Bear hitters who took swings early in the count. The Bears put good swings on a lot of those balls, but they were right to fielders or hung up enough for Whitehall outfielders to get under them.
“It’s very frustrating when you hit the ball and you hit it right at them,” Bears senior shortstop Brandon Kohn said. “We couldn’t really do anything against them and that’s a great job by them.”
Senior catcher Ryan Lowry noted some of the challenges Upper Moreland faced during the season, including Heiland having to step in as head coach during preseason practices and people questioning how good the team could be. While Upper Moreland finished third in the Suburban One League American Conference, they more than held their own against the 6A teams in their conference.
In the district tournament, the 10th seeded Bears upset the No. 7 and No. 2 seed to earn the state bid, then behind Kohn’s pitching, picked up an impressive first-round win over Archbishop Wood. It was that kind of resolve that got UM as far as it went.
“The beginning of the season wasn’t how we wanted it but we stuck together,” Lowry said. “We’ve stuck together forever, for the 10 years we’ve been playing together. I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.”
The Bears had runners on prior to the sixth inning, but never more than one runner in a single frame. Center fielder Randy Meehl hit a one-out infield single in the sixth, stole second and moved up to third on a groundout by Lowry.
Kohn, who was also UM’s ace pitcher this season, delivered a final RBI for his Bears career to score Meehl with two outs for the team’s first run of the game.
Upper Moreland added a final run in the seventh when Kevin Walder scored on an infield error after drawing a walk, stealing second and advancing on a ground out.
“I think it says our team has a lot of heart,” Meehl said. “Even the younger kids, they’re all in the game on the bench and all the seniors stayed in the game and fought hard.”
Upper Moreland will most certainly have a different look next year with these seniors, many of them two or three-year starters, going their separate ways. It’s a group that left its mark in their time together at Upper Moreland, including their memorable run to the Senior Little League World Series in 2015 and an appearance in the District 1-3A title game last year.
“I said to these guys that I’m just very proud of them for their efforts this season, not a lot of people had us going this far,” Heiland said. “We faced a lot of tough teams in districts and states to get to where we are. It’s been unbelievable, especially for me as a first-year head coach, I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys and the effort these guys gave day in and day out, it goes unnoticed or not talked about but it’s a grind and a long season to get to where we are.”
Kohn said he expects the Bears to be competitive again next year behind junior Dawson Ruggles and the young guys that filled the bench during the postseason run. Likewise, Lowry and Meehl have high hopes for their teammates and hope that they bond they shared with the other seniors can rub off on the guys coming back.
“I just hope that they play with heart and that they play hard on every single play,” Meehl said. “I hope they never get down on themselves too much and they keep their heads in it. Even when it’s not going your way, there’s always a chance for a comeback.”
WHITEHALL 5, UPPER MORELAND 1
Upper Moreland 000 001 1 – 2 5 1
Whitehall 121 010 x – 5 10 1
WP: Zach Gilbert. LP: Tommy Jacob. SV: Matt Dobeck.
3B: Alex Bruneio (W) . Multiple hits: Bruneio (W) 3-4, Dobeck (W) 2-4, Lisicky (W) 2-3