Small ball helps North Penn stay alive in PIAA AAAA Tournament

ROYERSFORD — It was definitely the best bunt in Jake Schuster’s baseball career. In fact, it was only the second time the North Penn junior can remember laying one down. However, the Knights’ designated hitter Thursday afternoon drove in the tying run with some small ball and helped his team take a 2-1 win over Pennsbury, advancing North Penn to the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals.

Monday, the Knights (20-4 overall) will play either Shaler or State College at a time and place to be determined.

“We are going to do what we need to do in the right spot,’ North Penn coach Kevin Manero said. “We put Jake in because he is hitting the ball hard. We went with hot hand.’

It was a tall task for the junior, but Schuster was not going to back down from the challenge. Manero gave the left-handed swinging Schuster a chance to start against the Falcons’ left-handed starting pitcher Zach Conley. With his deceiving delivery, the back-up catcher struggled to pick up the baseball as many left-handed batters do against a lefty starter.

“I thought that I was not going to be in the lineup knowing their pitcher was a lefty,’ Schuster said. “He (Manero) showed confidence in me and I went out there and tried to execute. Lefties are tough, but I want to be in there.’

In Schuster’s second at-bat, he made his presence in the lineup felt. The first task was getting a bunt down with two runners on base and no one out. With Conley asked to cover the third base side, Schuster was easily safe at first base and the Falcons pitcher threw it away trying to make a play at third base.

“At first I was swinging away, but then coach Manero called time,’ Schuster said. “That is the second time I have every bunted in my life. I practice it a ton though.’

Schuster’s bunt single gave the Knights life after nine straight innings of scoreless offense, dating back to Wednesday and the end of their 5-0 first-round win over Olney Charter. Senior Jared Melone, who scored on the Schuster bunt, also drove in the game-winning run in the following inning.

“Our offense has slowed down a little bit,’ Schuster said. “We did not put our bat on the ball (against Olney), so we came out here trying to get them on and get the in.’

“We did not execute perfectly, but we executed at the right times,’ Melone said. “Schuster does not see many innings, but he was ready today. He laid down the perfect bunt. That is all you have to do to have an amazing game.’

Schuster was not the only new addition to the North Penn lineup for the quarterfinal contest. Freshman Ryan Bealer got the nod over a banged-up Zach Zeigler in right field. Manero showed confidence in his decision to insert Schuster and Bealer into the lineup, even though the pair struck out four times in six at-bats. Bealer also had a bunt single before getting picked off second base.

“Our execution has not been great,’ Manero said. “We have guys that can run. We pretty much end every practice with base steals. You have to put pressure on the defense. We did not pick up the move today.’

The Knights were picked off three times in the contest against Conley and all starting pitcher James Witner could do was watch and wait for his chance to go back to the mound and put up more zeros on the scoreboard. The Falcons scored their lone run after two balls got away from Witner’s catcher, but that was all the fellow District 1 team could muster.

“For a long time I knew James was going to be very good,’ Manero said. “He made some big pitches. He is everything you want out of our pitcher. Somebody is going to get a steal next year if he wants to play in college.’

Despite all the miscues and second-guessed decisions, Witner was there to work out of jams when it mattered the most. He stranded runners on the corners in the seventh inning to get out of his own mess. Coach Manero had a reliever ready in the bullpen, but this was Witner’s game. The senior may only pitch again if the Knights tighten up loose ends and end up in the state championship next Friday.

“A win is a win, but you can always do things better,’ Witner said. “I trust my team and I know they can execute and they will get runs for me. I hope to be in the big game, in the biggest situation.’

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