EPHRATA >> By the time Carson Kulina’s 2-2 curveball fluttered into catcher Tommy Bramley’s glove in the fourth inning Monday night, the hurler had already taken two steps toward the Lower Dauphin dugout in anticipation of the umpire raising his fist to end the inning.
He didn’t, and two pitches later, Carroll eight-hitter Sean Lawley produced the moment around which the game would pivot. But it wouldn’t turn in the direction that the Patriots anticipated.
Lawley won that battle, his RBI double opening the scoring in the PIAA Class 5A semifinal at Ephrata High School’s War Memorial Field. But the sting of that umpiring slight fueled the Falcons to two runs in the top half of the fifth, the venom translating into a taut 3-2 win over Carroll to book a place in Thursday’s state final.
It didn’t take long for Lower Dauphin to channel the acrimony of the moment. First, Lawley had to cash in on his second life, roping a double to right-center field that scored Trent Pierce and gave Carroll a 1-0 edge in a well-pitched but error-strewn game.
“He was throwing a lot of strikes,” Lawley said of Kulina. “He was starting with the curveball. I was looking for a fastball. I was looking at a few fastballs before that so I just had to put a good swing on it, make something happen, put the ball in play.”
Kulina limited the damage, and the fired-up Falcons answered back immediately, Connor Buggy leading off the fifth by lacing a triple to right-center. Nick Bennett plated him with an RBI single, then Clay Spencer lined a sac fly to left center that Pat Marley dove to corral, but it still scored Bennett to nudge Lower Dauphin ahead.
“We definitely thought it was strike three, but you just come back from that,” Buggy said. “They score, we have to bounce back, score some runs. That definitely fueled the fire for the next half-inning for us as we were just ready to swing the bats and get it going, score some runs.”
With the lead in hand, it was left to each team to navigate the transition from starter to bullpen under the PIAA’s pitch-count limits. Carroll starter Jake Kelchner went five innings, lifted when he hit 75 pitches to keep him available for a potential state final. He departed after Bramley led off the sixth with a single. Under reliever Tyler Kehoe’s watch, Bramley scored on Jarek Bacon’s double.
Grill breaks up a double play then an error scores the run. 3-2 LD up on Carroll. 1 on, 1 out. pic.twitter.com/I9oMx0CqW8
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) June 12, 2018
Kelchner went five, allowing five hits and three runs (two earned). He walked none and struck out one. Kehoe faced eight batters: Two, Bacon and Spencer, doubled; the other six struck out.
Kulina, the Shenandoah signee, walked two and struck out seven, but he tired in the sixth, starting by issuing a lead-off walk to Kelchner. (Both of Kulina’s walks eventually scored). After a hit by pitch, Dan Crossan hit a grounder to short that looked like a potential double play. But Chris Grill went in hard to second, causing Buggy to airmail first with his throw and Kelchner’s courtesy runner, Kyle Wagner, to leg it home.
“Just another day at the office for Carson,” Buggy said. “He comes out with intensity every day, just trying to get people out. That’s what he did today, and it paid off for us.”
Chesnet lines out for the last out.
Final: Lower Dauphin 3, Archbishop Carroll 2. PIAA 5A semi. pic.twitter.com/2x8c6spc94
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) June 12, 2018
A fielder’s choice where Buggy couldn’t get either runner on a hit-and-run followed to end Kulina’s day, but Will Manley struck out Marley to end the threat.
Manley then set down the top of Carroll’s lineup in order in the seventh to send the Falcons to their second PIAA final. They last made it in 2013, losing a 6-5 decision in nine innings to North Penn. Lower Dauphin awaits the winner of Marple Newtown and West Allegheny, the other semifinal postponed by rain to Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Scotland Park in Greene Township. First pitch at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in State College is slated for 6 p.m. Thursday.
Carroll’s recent history is less storied, but coach Mike Costanzo has overseen significant growth in his three years in charge. From perennially mired in the middle of the Catholic League pack, the Patriots advanced to the league final this year. Their first states berth in the decade that the PCL has been a part of the PIAA led them within one run of a trip to Penn State.
Kelchner, who transferred in from Spring-Ford as a senior, departs for the University of Alabama. But with Kehoe, a University of South Carolina commit, spearheading a talented junior class, this may not be a one-and-done run. And Costanzo knows his players have the mindset to build on this year.
“Starting my freshman year, our record was not good,” said Lawley, another junior. “And then the next year we improved it a little bit, and then this year making it this far and just Mike turning it around, it was a great. And then next year, we’re going to come out and do the same thing, just grind, try to get to the state championship again.”
“I know my guys, and I know they’re going to use it as motivation,” Costanzo said. “There’s not many kids that won’t use it as motivation in the offseason and moving forward. So it’s a learning process for the young guys and a great run by the seniors.”