STATE COLLEGE — While everyone else at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park battled the array of weather conditions all evening, the North Penn baseball team just had chills.
Whether it was 90 degree weather or a 79-minute rain delay, the Knights never broke a sweat during the PIAA Class AAAA championship Friday.The uncontrollable obstacles never deterred the District 1 runner-ups from their goal. The group got runs early and eventually felt the unexplainable feeling of winning a state championship, much later in extra innings.
Even having pulled off the trick twice already in the last seven years, the 4-3 eight-inning win over Wyoming Valley West left the Knights speechless and in a state of euphoria.
“Rain delay, snow delay, an error to tie, the game, it just does not matter,” North Penn coach Kevin Manero said. “These guys stay within themselves. Yes, we gave up the lead, but we did not panic.”
Seniors Mike Christy and James Witner came to Penn State and picked up right where they off the last time they took for the field for Knights (23-4) this postseason. Christy connected on a double to open the game and came around to score on a Mason Nadeau ground out. Christy prior at-bat was the game winning home run in the semifinals.
Witner, who worked seven strong innings against Pennsbury in the quarterfinals, worked eight solid innings to secure gold medals going back to Lansdale.
“My off-speed was not the best today,” Witner said. “I had to move my fastball around, trust my defense, and I knew the offense would come through.”
The 6-1, 160 pound senior who is head to West Chester, battled back after allowing the tying run to score with two outs in the seventh inning. One strike away from a state title in regulation, Justin Vought laced a liner off the glove of Christy.
“He did not have the command he usually has, but he did battle,” Manero said. “Even if he is not going real well, in the end he still steps up and makes that big pitch.”
When Witner came back to pitch after the rain delay in the fifth inning, he returned with two runners in scoring position and junior Ryan Hogan, the Spartans’ most dangerous hitter at the plate. Manero felt confident in his ace’s ability to continue.
“Any sign of tightness James would not have gone out there, but I thought he looked stronger in the bullpen,” Manero said. “I don’t think he had a ton of life at the end, but I knew he could get through it.”
Hogan, a Saint John’s commit, was intentionally walked to face Vought. Vought eventually grounded out but the damage had already been done. A wayward pick-off attempt by Witner, trying to catch Hogan napping, sailed into right field to tie the game. Luckily, the Knights know not to sweat the small stuff, even when the Spartans would not die.
“Some of it is on me,” Witner said. “I just knew I needed to get the next guy out. They wanted me out there and I wanted to be out there.”
Jake Schuster connected in the clutch, bringing home Jared Melone with an RBI single to left, help the Knights regain the lead 3-2 in the sixth.
“Jake took advantage of opportunity,” Manero said. “You win with good players and you lose with bad coaches. That’s how it works.”
Then in the extra frame, senior Anthony Cameron brought in the game-winning run when pitcher Tyler Yankosky overthrew first on his chopper in front of home plate. It was pinch runner freshman Ryan Bealer who score from second base. Bealer was running for Schuster, who reached on a fielder’s choice.
“I know I cannot strike out in that situation (in the eighth inning),” Cameron said. “I wanted to put the bunt in a good spot and see what happens.”
Witner only needed to fan three in the title-clinching win thanks to some strong defense. He covered first base perfectly for the last out of the game. The Spartans (17-2) made some strong contact in the late innings, but they were under the offerings too often at Lubrano Park. They put the ball in the spacious outfield way too often. With the speed of Nadeau and Alex Peterson in the outfield, balls were unlikely to drop.
“We know what we can do,” Cameron said. “As a sophomore, I was looking for other people and this year I was hoping people would look for me and all the seniors. This is awesome.”
And on a single to right field in the fourth inning the Knights Zach Zeigler gunned down a runner at the plate by throwing a strike to his cutoff man Douglas Apple, who in turn hit catcher Matt Marino in time to keep the Spartans scoreless. It paid dividends in a one-run game. That was just one big time play, by big time players, on a big time team.
“It makes the game so much simpler when you have a pitcher that pounds the zone like James Witner,” Cameron said. “He ran with it. We ran it.”