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West Chester Rustin shocks Cushing, Phoenixville in District 1-5A opener

PHOENIXVILLE >> Brad Harkins describes his West Chester Rustin baseball team as a scrappy bunch that never says die and battles until the end of games.

“You never know who the star is going to be,” said Harkins. “We are the definition of a team. That’s what I love about these guys.”

Harkins’ group proved their worth again Monday afternoon in the opening round of the District 1-5A playoffs against host Phoenixville at Doc Kennedy Field. The Golden Knights broke on top with four runs on four hits in the top of the first inning and then held off Phoenixville, 8-6, to advance to the quarterfinal round of the tournament.

Phoenixville catcher Nick Opalkowski, left, talks with pitcher Kevin Cushing during Monday’s District 1-5A playoff game. (Barry Taglieber – For Digital First Media)

Rustin, a Ches-Mont League school and the 12th-seeded squad in these playoffs, advanced to the quarterfinals. The Golden Knights (12-11) will face fourth-seeded Strath Haven, a 2-1 winner over Bishop Shanahan, in Wednesday’s second round of the postseason playoffs.

No. 5 seed Phoenixville, winners of the Frontier Division (small school) in the Pioneer Athletic Conference, saw its season come to a screeching halt. The Phantoms reached the Final Four of the PAC playoffs for the first time since 2013.

They used a stellar pitching outing by junior Luke Bagley to beat Methacton, 3-1, in the semifinals, but then fell to Boyertown, 7-0, in the doubleheader championship game Friday night at Bear Stadium in the weather-delayed tourney.

They came right back out for districts as the fifth seed in the opener at home Monday with their senior ace, Kevin Cushing, on the mound. But a victory was not in the cards, and the Phantoms saw their season end at 16-5 overall.

West Chester Rustin’s pitcher Jake Geissler delivers to the plate during Monday’s District 1-5A playoff game against Phoenixville. (Barry Taglieber – For Digital First Media)

Phoenixville fell behind 8-0 after 4 1/2 innings, but then scored five of its runs in the last half of the fifth inning to make a game of it.

Senior Jake Geissler started on the hill for the Golden Knights and pitched 4 2/3 innings to earn the mound win with the aid of seven strikeouts. He received relief help from Ryan Wittman and then left-hander Ben Watson came on from center field to retire the final two batters in the seventh inning.

Cushing pitched the first three innings for Phoenixville and left the mound after facing one batter in the fourth inning. Lefty Will Trianosky went one inning in relief, and Trip Shoemaker came in from center field to finish up the last three frames.

“We face tough pitchers and tough teams all season,” said Harkins. “Our guys are excited about playing Wednesday.”

“I am more mad than sad,” said Phoenixville senior catcher and leadoff hitter Nick Opalkowski. “We made so many errors and had so many opportunities to score runs. It’s over, but it hasn’t hit me yet.”

West Chester Rustin’s Nick Maiorano is greetied by teammates in the dugout after scoring a run during Monday’s District 1-5A playoff game against Phoenixville. (Barry Taglieber – For Digital First Media)

The Phantoms graduate 11 seniors, including seven baseball players who will continue playing at the collegiate level. In addition, designated hitter Jon Miller, a star lineman on the football team, will continue playing football at West Chester University.

“I am going to miss them all,” said Opalkowski. “It’s been a fantastic four years. We had a lot of team cohesion with guys on the bench. It was a very fun year despite the loss.”

Phoenixville coach Neil Herman discussed the setback.

“It is something you would never have expected, falling behind like we did, especially with Kevin on the mound,” said Herman. “But to lose 8-6, we scored all those runs in the last three innings.

“We had opportunities to tie the game. I am proud of the fortitude of these kids.”

Herman still called the campaign one of the best seasons in Phoenixville school history.

But he said the result gave credence to the adage that any baseball team is capable of beating another on a given day.

Notes >> Rustin junior Matt Fricker is the grandson of Ron Fricker, who was an assistant coach to John “Doc” Kennedy with the Phoenixville High School and Senior American Legion teams for 13 years. … Matt is a left-handed pitcher and outfielder for the Golden Knights. He is the son of Steve Fricker, who was an outfielder at Phoenixville and Millersville University. … Ron Fricker’s daughter, Amy Fricker, played four sports at Phoenixville and also went on to Millersville. …. Watson, Patrick McDonough and Nick Halcavich each had two hits for Rustin. … Luke LeBeau and Shoemaker had two hits apiece for the Phantoms.

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