STATE COLLEGE >> Mark Jordan wasn’t short on expressions of emotion Thursday night, long after the Marple Newtown coach thought he would’ve departed Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Once the subject turned to his assistant, though, the day’s events reached their emotional apex.
Jim Balk sat off to the side of the interview room, alone with his thoughts and a gold medal. Few figures have been as enduring in the Delco baseball scene as the man who started coaching Radnor 51 years ago, a full decade before the PIAA got in the business of awarding baseball championships. From that first final staged in 1977 at Shippensburg University onward, no Delco school had taken home a gold medal. Before Thursday, only two had played in a final.
When those two streaks converged — that a Delco squad for which the 75-year-old Balk is the pitching coach could end the streak, via a 2-1 win in 10 innings over Lower Dauphin in the Class 5A final — the beautiful symmetry was profound for Jordan.
“That was a great feeling,” Jordan said. “He had tears in his eyes — partly because his back is hurting him, partly because his medication is wearing off and partly because he’s finally reached his pinnacle. How many teams can say they won a state title? Not many. Not any in Delaware County. And now for the rest of his life, he can say he’s a state champion.”
Balk epitomizes the Tigers’ larger accomplishment Thursday night. On their own, they achieved so much, the program growing first under Steve Smith, then Jordan, to advance to at least the state quarterfinals each of the last three years. The 10-inning classic, the second-longest in PIAA history, exemplified that, via contributions up and down the lineup.
But the larger picture is instructive. No Delco team had ever won a PIAA baseball title. Only Sun Valley in 2006 and Marple Newtown in 2007 had qualified for championship games, and Delco had gone years without any representation in states.
“I said to (Marple athletic director Chris Gicking) before the game, ‘you know, Delco really needs this,’” former Penncrest coach and District 1 baseball commissioner Steve Mescanti said. “We’ve just had so many really great teams over the years and just kind of haven’t gotten it done, and these guys, you figure they’ve been building it for three years now. Semifinalist two years ago, quarterfinalists last year. This year, they got it done.”
Jordan knew that history well, having left Marple in 2010 and landing at Radnor, which he led to a District 1 Class AAA title in 2016, the same year Smith piloted Marple to the PIAA AAAA semis. The Tigers made a change, pushing out Smith, and brought back Jordan, hoping he could take the next step.
As his lieutenant, Jordan brought Balk with him, the man who had spent 37 seasons at the helm at Radnor until 2003, building both their program and facilities. In psuedo-retirement, he spearheaded the construction of the Chester Athletic Complex for the high school and Delco League franchise. No one was better equipped to help Jordan assemble a championship structure atop the sturdy foundation already laid.
Trophy time. pic.twitter.com/m8HhU1YOF7
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) June 15, 2018
Thursday’s win has Balk’s fingerprints all over it. He still calls all the pitches for the Tigers, this season working with a new catcher in Luke Cantwell. The West Chester signee had excelled since his sophomore season as an imposing corner outfielder but made the move behind the plate to shore up an area of concern. The pitching staff led by Luke Zimmerman, Alden Mathes and Sean Standen has been outstanding all year, owing to the work Balk they’ve done with Balk.
Standen in particular showcased Balk’s handiwork in the final. He worked 4.1 high-pressure innings without surrendering a run. He recorded 13 outs while permitting just six base-runners (three walks, three hits) to notch his seventh win of the season against zero losses.
That’s impressive in isolation. But to consider that the senior didn’t pitch on varsity last year speaks to his growth under his pitching guru.
“He’s a man of very few words, but when it comes to baseball, it’s special what he does,” Standen said. “It’s very special. He’s very smart, he knows the game and I always listen.”
Standen’s performance also owes to a veteran toughness that Jordan and Balk have helped cultivate. Had the righty faltered, the options to relieve him were a pair of talented sophomores, Andrew Cantwell and Joey Pettinelli, both of whom had logged noteworthy amounts of innings this year, but nothing approximating the pressure of extras in a state final.
Jordan twice had the opportunity to pinch-hit for Standen, which would’ve forced him to go to his bullpen. Twice, he opted to ride with the veteran, an intuition that paid off, if not at the plate but certainly on the mound.
“For Sean Standen to throw 4 1/3 shutout innings is crazy,” Jordan said. “If you would’ve told me that four hours ago, I would’ve fallen off my chair laughing.”
Jordan will treasure plenty of memories from Thursday night — his team’s fight-back from a 1-0 deficit in the sixth, the way in which numerous players stepped up with big plays, the thud of Zimmerman’s walk-off single off the wall in right. But slipping that medal over the head of his friend and mentor Balk is near the top of the long list.
“I’m tickled to death for Jim,” Jordan said. “He’s earned it, he’s deserved it. He’s great with the boys. And for all the people in the world to have it, it’s outstanding.”
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