GREENE TWP. >> At the outset of the 2018 season, Marple Newtown was in search of an identity.
Sure, the players believed tere there was plenty of talent on hand. But could the Tigers possibly live up to the standard set by the 2017 squad?
The Tigers had said goodbye to stalwarts Cameron Mathes, Scott Hahn and Cory Woodcock, all of whom helped lead the way to a District 1 Class 5A championship in 2017 and the PIAA Class AAA semifinals in 2016. Mathes and Hahn were the team’s co-aces during their playoff run. Luke Zimmerman was a No. 3 starter as a junior, and sophomore Alden Mathes was considered a back-end rotation piece with huge upside.
With Alden Mathes unavailable to pitch extensively, the Tigers needed returning starters like catcher Luke Cantwell, shortstop Kevin Merrone and Zimmerman to reach their full potential.
In a lot of ways, they’ve been much better. They dominated the regular season, won a Central League title without much of a fight and cruised into the postseason looking for more.
Zimmerman is a prime example of a player who took huge strides in his development. He exploded as a two-way player and has been responsible for so many of the Tigers’ dramatic victories. There was the walk-off homer in the District 1 quarterfinals against Kennett, the three-run double against Wissahickon, the three-hitter twirled against Mars High in the second round of states. He has been a superhero pretty much all season long.
Without Zimmerman it’s difficult to imagine the Tigers reaching their second PIAA championship game, their first since 2007. They’re just the third baseball team in Delaware County history to make a state final. Zimmerman will get the start Thursday at Penn State University’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park as the Tigers attempt to make some history. First pitch is scheduled for 6 o’clock.
“I’ll be ready,” he said Tuesday.
Marple Newtown (24-2) faces Lower Dauphin, the third-place finisher from District 3. The Falcons rallied for a 3-2 decision over Archbishop Carroll.
Behind Mathes’ 10-strikeout, two-hit masterpiece, the Tigers advanced to the final with a 1-0 victory over West Allegheny at Greene Township Park. Zimmerman got the save, picking up Mathes in the seventh inning to record the final two outs. He’ll be locked and loaded for Thursday’s final, and will not be restricted by pitch counts until he reaches the century mark.
“Last year we had a rough game (in the state quarterfinals) against a team that shouldn’t have beat us,” Zimmerman said. “But that has only helped the team this year. We’ve just kept fighting and obviously we don’t want to ever have that feeling of losing again. Just making it to the state championship is crazy, especially for a little school like Marple. To get there is amazing.”
Marple’s pitching has been steady all season. Zimmerman and Mathes, both southpaws, have the best stuff on the staff. But don’t discount senior righthanders Sean Standen (6-0, 2.72 ERA) and Steve Morrison (3-0, 2.30). Cantwell has done a tremendous job handling the staff behind the plate. The West Chester commit is also the team’s cleanup hitter.
The Tigers made 10 errors in their final two District 1 tournament games but have cleaned up the defense in the state tournament. Merrone made a sensational diving play up the middle to rob a base hit in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s semifinal game. Andrew Cantwell and Reilly Fillman have great closing speed in the outfield. Mathes will likely start in his normal spot in center field Thursday, where he’s a plus-defender with top speed.
“We all believe in each other, and at the end of the day, we’re all happy with what we have done together,” Merrone said Tuesday. “It’s a special group. We’re going to give it all we’ve got on Thursday.”
Coach Mark Jordan was at the helm when the Tigers fell to District 9’s Punxsutawney, 5-4, in the 2007 PIAA Class AAA final. He coached to a District 1 title in 2016, before returning to Marple Newtown prior to the 2017 season.
In his first year back, all he did was guide the Tigers to their first district crown in program history. Eccentric and unconventional but always entertaining, Jordan has cultivated a championship atmosphere wherever he has coached. Additionally, Jordan has won district titles coaching girls basketball.
Jordan would prefer to share the credit with his staff, which includes veteran coach Jim Balk, who won more than 400 games as head coach at Radnor. Balk is Jordan’s right-hand man and a seer of baseball wisdom.
“It’s good to be going back to State College,” Jordan said. “The kids deserve it, the school deserves it. You can’t ask for much more. Final game of the season … and we’re here.”
But what can the Tigers expect against Lower Dauphin? The Falcons (23-3) defeated District 12 champion Archbishop Carroll in the semifinals. They have relied on excellent pitching. Ace righty Carson Kulina, the son of Falcons coach Ken Kulina, pitched a gem against Carroll but exceeded his pitch count limit and is ineligible for the final.
It’s likely that righty Ryan Kutz will get the nod on the mound. Kutz is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 58 strikeouts. He fired a two-hit shutout in LD’s 1-0 win over North Pocono in the quarterfinals.
The Falcons could also call upon Will Manley (5-2, 1.78 ERA), who got four outs in relief Monday.
Tommy Bramley is the team’s best hitter. The senior catcher and Mount St. Mary’s commit is batting .521 on the season. Clay Spencer, a speedy senior outfielder, is hitting .357 and leads the club with 12 stolen bases. Senior second baseman Josh Saufley is hitting .419.
Lower Dauphin has made one other state finals appearance. In 2013, the Falcons lost the Class AAAA title game to North Penn in nine innings, 5-4.
Based on the teams’ recent game history, one might expect a low-scoring affair Thursday night.
“It’s time to go all-out,” Luke Cantwell said. “We’ve been having fun all year and I can’t ask for a better senior year. To be able to play for and win a state championship in my senior year, it would be incredible. I really want to bring it home to Marple.”