GREENE TWP. >> The temptation to lean on clichés was palpable for Mike Smith Monday, not because they were easy, but because they rang true.
It was a game of inches, could have hinged on a break here or there. And for a time in the immediate aftermath of a 2-1 Springfield loss to Greater Latrobe in the PIAA Class 5A baseball semifinal, that’s the best of what the emotional leadoff man and left fielder had to fall back on.
On any given day — on another given day — perhaps the hurt could have been avoided, the razor-thin margin separating the District 7 champ and District 1 runner-up reversed with a chance at a first PIAA final berth for either program on the line.
But that day wasn’t Monday for Springfield. And in the wreckage of that pain can be found the truest, purest appreciation the Cougars can salvage for the achievement of their journey within a game of Penn State.
“If you’re going to a state final, you’re playing 28 games,” head coach Brian Francis said. “We got to play 27. That’s a huge accomplishment for a group of kids.”
The truth as revealed by a tense, 1-hour-and-23-minute pitching duel at Greene Township Park is how narrow the dividing line between the final two or four or eight teams is in a gamut like the PIAA tournament.
The winning run, pushed across in the bottom of the second, came when eight-hitter Isaac Echard hit an RBI single, stole second, then swiped third and scampered home with Andrew Todaro’s on-time throw squirting past third baseman Dave Bingaman and down the line.
Just like that, a Springfield team with five wins in the district and state playoffs, a team that allowed just two runs (one earned) in 21 innings of states baseball, was bounced, ending a decade-long search for the latest Delco state finalist — since Sun Valley and Marple Newtown qualified consecutively in 2006 and 2007.
The scarcity of finalists indicates how helter-skelter compiling a state champion can be and just how much luck needs to be spiced into the recipe; it also starkly contrasts the success of recent years, of which Springfield is a prime facet.
Prior to last season, Delco teams were winless in their previous seven states trips over eight years. So desolate was the record from Delco representatives that as of 2015, the shuttered Kennedy-Kenrick had won a states baseball game more recently than any representative of the county.
But the tides have shifted, even before the PIAA’s enlargement to the ludicrous expanse of six classes. Radnor picked up a win in the Class AAA tourney last year as Marple Newtown qualified for a state semifinal in AAAA (falling on this same field to Plum).
Proving 2016 to be no fluke, both Marple and Springfield won games in this year’s state tournament. And while the struggles of the previous decade represent a particular lull, they occur in a sport in which Delco has never traditionally dominated: Baseball is one of only three sports (with wrestling and girls tennis) in which no Delco team has ever won a PIAA team crown.
Kraig Kaufhold, a Springfield assistant, was the head man of the Sun Valley Class AAA runner-up in 2006, with Francis as his assistant. Seeing Springfield play Greater Latrobe so tightly reinforces the significant, if consolatory, prize of the Cougars returning home knowing they are state-final caliber.
“That’s what makes it so remarkable,” Kaufhold said. “It is any given day. To win five playoff games in a season, it’s tough. That’s a credit to our group of seniors, but our pitching has been strong all year. … It’s so minute, and it just didn’t happen to be our day.”
Francis’s keys to the setback bear it out. Too many fly ball outs at the spacious GTP, not enough grounders to force the Wildcats to make plays. Too many strikeouts (six total in Ryan Shawley’s economical, 83-pitch, three-hit gem), not enough balls in play.
A year ago, Marple’s banishment by Plum owed to its star, Alex Kiriloff, the 15th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft who a week later was given 2.8 million reasons why he should’ve led a team to a state final. Monday’s edition of semis heartbreak, the 16th straight win by the Wildcats, wasn’t so decisive. Not on the hit count (4-3 Greater Latrobe, with Bingaman’s double the only extra-base hit). Not on the mound, Springfield’s Jared Morris (four strikeouts, one walk, 70 pitches) twirling a beaut of his own. Even the comeback spirit, which led Springfield to three come-from-behind wins in districts, nearly remerged with a Morris single and an error in the top of the seventh, but Brandon DiChiacchio’s pop to center hung up just long enough for Zack Kokoska to camp under and put away.
The sliver of difference is why Smith’s tears eventually evaporated into the June swelter and the perspective returned, with a novel truth rooted refreshingly in the present.
“We said earlier in the year, our goal was to make the state championship,” Smith said. “Some people laughed, others doubted us. But we always believed in ourselves, so it’s good knowing that we kept our word, we fought every inning of all 27 games we played this year and I couldn’t be more proud.
“Looking back on my high school days, it’s all going to be happy memories. This one might sting now, but it’s all going to be happy memories.”
Even though the 28th game never materialized, that assertion feels unassailable.
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd
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