While Whitehall ended Upper Moreland’s baseball season in the PIAA quarterfinals on Thursday, the Golden Bears saw a lot of similarities between the two teams.
Both the Bears and the Zephyrs are 5A schools playing in a conference filled with bigger 6A opponents but managed to not only hold their own, but take down a couple of the big guys too. Both teams were seeded on the lower half of their district brackets but pulled off a couple upsets on their way to clinching states.
The PIAA’s expansion to six classes opened opportunities for more teams to make playoff runs and this spring, Upper Moreland took advantage.
“The format changed so we got an extra chance I guess, because more teams made it,” UM senior catch Ryan Lowry said. “We thought we were good enough (to make states) last year but this year, we knew we had a lot of people coming back and we knew we could make another run.”
The foundation to this year’s team was its nine seniors, many of them serving as multiple-year starters. Teammates for more than 10 years, the seniors had won a lot of games together, going back to youth leagues, Legion ball and for most of them, the memorable trip to the Senior Little League World Series in the summer of 2015.
So, they knew how to win and wouldn’t be fazed by playing close games that often came down to the last few innings. The Bears showed that early on, winning their second game of the season in walk-off fashion when Lowry’s single scored senior center fielder Randy Meehl.
“We all hang out, we’re all really relaxed during practice and games,” Meehl said. “It’s like a brotherhood. We don’t have kids butting heads, we have the same goal and we’re on the same page.”
Upper Moreland finished third in the Suburban One League American Conference but none of their league losses were by more than two runs. They also fought for their spot, picking up wins over the eventual conference champion Hatboro-Horsham and runner-up Quakertown.
Even though they went into the District 1 tournament as the 10 seed, the Bears knew they were a team ready to make a run and did so. They shutout seventh-seeded West Chester Henderson in the first round, then picked up a big upset when pitcher Tommy Jacob shutout No. 2 seed Holy Ghost Prep to clinch a state berth.
A loss to eventual district champ Marple Newtown followed, but UM rebounded to beat Upper Merion for the third seed then faced Archbishop Wood in the first round of states. Wood, like Upper Moreland, surprised some with a strong season despite losing some key players from the prior season.
Upper Moreland gave the ball to ace senior Brandon Kohn and he pitched a shutout in a 2-0 win.
“I have a lot of memories with these players, all nine of us seniors, we’ve been together for 10 years, and all in all, it was a great senior season,” Kohn said. “We picked up right where left off last year and went further. We knew were going to come out, try and win our district, compete in states and go as far as we could.”
Senior first baseman Jon Searles didn’t have a hit in his final game, but his bat and defense were a consistent presence during his career for Upper Moreland. Teams like the Bears often need players to sacrifice and senior Nick Pagano was a perfect case, not often batting but roving right field defensively.
Every team loses seniors at the end of every season and with the nine leaving Upper Moreland, it leaves a lot of areas for the next wave of Bears to fill. Kohn didn’t expect a letdown, citing junior Dawson Ruggles as the guy to take his role as the staff ace and leader for next year’s group.
The nine seniors are going their separate paths after the summer and not all of them are playing baseball again but they’ll always have the memories they made over the last decade-plus.
“For me, every memory falls into one category, it was all positive with these guys,” Meehl said. “I’m going to miss playing with these guys.”
“Nobody can change what we did, we’ll always have this team,” Lowry said. “It’s one that will always be remembered.”