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Baseball careers winding down for 2016 Boyertown state champs

Ryan Weller and Mitch Pinder sat in their apartment at Kutztown University earlier this spring, watching a Phillies spring training game when a familiar face popped up on the screen: Minnesota Twins’ prospect Alex Kirilloff.

Weller, Pinder and the rest of the 2016 Boyertown baseball team took down Kirilloff, the No. 15 pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, and his Plum High School team for the Bears’ first state championship in 25 years on June 16 four years ago.

Seeing their former foe pop up on the TV screen was a reminder of how time has flown by in the four years since that magical run.

“We were actually talking about it a few weeks ago that it’s been that long already,” said Weller, a member of the Kutztown baseball team the last four years with Pinder. “It’s just crazy that it’s already been four years. It makes me feel old.”

 

Ryan Weller, Kutztown

 

Boyertown finished the 2016 season with a 24-5 record, winning a Pioneer Athletic Conference championship and making a trip to the District 1 Class 4A semifinals.

The Bears recorded the program’s first PIAA win in 21 years before claiming state gold for the first time in a quarter century with a 4-1 win over Plum at Penn State University.

A large group of the seniors went on to make a trip to the Senior Babe Ruth World Series with the Pine Forge baseball program later that summer.

“That was a fun year,” Pinder said. “You win a state title. You go play Pine Forge and you go to a World Series. That was a fun year. We talk about that a lot and those guys are still my best friends. Those are friendships that are never going to be broken.”

While the Mercury had eight eventual Division I players on its 2016 All-Area team, none of them came from the Bears.

Pinder, a first team all-area second baseman, and Weller, an honorable mention all-area catcher, both ended up at Kutztown. Pitcher Pat Hohlfeld, the 2016 Mercury Player of the Year, joined Pinder and Weller in the Division II ranks at Jefferson University (formerly Philly U). First team all-area first baseman Ben Longacre played the last four years at Goshen College, an NAIA school in Indiana.

The Bears’ other ace Andrew Bauer, another first team all-area selection, didn’t pursue a college playing career after posting an 8-1 record with a 1.19 ERA in his senior season. Second team all-area outfielder Ryan Jacobs spent a season at Penn State-Berks.

Third baseman Tyler Kreitz, an all-area honorable mention, is a junior at Berks and designated hitter Mitch Peers is a sophomore at Rowan College at Gloucester County, while several others had short stints at the lower levels of college baseball.

“For myself specifically, I’ll go back and look at the pictures and think in my head. ‘Wow I don’t know how we did that,’” Pinder said. “Or I’ll talk to my buddies at school and they’ll ask, ‘How many D1 did you guys have? Did anyone get drafted?’ No we just had a couple D2 guys and a lot of D3 guys and we just knew how to play.”

Mitch Pinder, Kutztown

“It’s clear that we didn’t have some of the D1 talent per say that other teams had but we just had a team of guys who did what it takes to win,” Longacre said. “Whether it was making all the plays in the field, competing on the mound, competing at the plate, getting a bunt down if it was needed to, stealing a base if it was needed to. Just executing.”

While a handful of former Boyertown players have been able to add championship hardware during their college careers, including Kreitz and Seth Endy who were both part of North Eastern Athletic Conference championship and NCAA Division III Tournament teams at Penn State-Berks, most of the former Bears have not had nearly the same level of team success they had in high school.

Kutztown had a losing record in Pinder and Weller’s first three seasons, never advancing to the PSAC tournament. Weller said a frustrating 16-31 season as freshmen was hard to adjust to coming off a state championship and years of success at Boyertown.

Longacre’s Goshen teams never put together a winning campaign, although he did get to experience the postseason in the Crossroads League Tournament in his first three seasons. Jefferson likewise posted losing campaigns in Hohlfeld’s first two seasons, but he did get a taste of the postseason in the Colonial States Athletic Conference playoffs.

“There is a certain, I don’t know what the right word is, just a certain feeling you have as a Boyertown baseball player,” Longacre said. “Just a certain way you were coached especially. You get to college and one thing that becomes apparent right away is not everyone was coached the same way as you and goes about the business the same way as you because of where you came from. … The fortunate thing is you are able to bring that mentality and those teachings wherever you go.”

Longacre remembers Hohlfeld, who had a 0.84 ERA with the Bears as a junior in 2016, taking a nap during the rain delay before the 2016 state championship game, when he allowed one run in a complete game effort. He was no stranger to big games that season, starting the PAC championship and state title games as well as the District 1 quarterfinal that clinched the Bears’ berth in states.

Hohlfeld made an appearance in two of Jefferson’s three CSAC playoff games last season, coming out of the bullpen in one game and logging seven innings as a starter in another. He said it was hard to compare either of those contests to his outings in 2016.

“It definitely helped open my eyes to, ‘Oh you’re not the biggest fish in the sea any more,’” Hohlfeld said of the Bears’ state championship run. “The stage of the state championship helps a lot with nerves and pressure. Even like a regular conference collegiate game, I almost felt more nervous than pitching in the that (state championship) game. At least from what I can remember.”

Pat Hohlfeld, Jefferson University

Hohlfeld said he’ll occasionally get asked about the 2016 state championship team by a curious newcomer on the Jefferson team who played in the area. Pinder also said conversations about the that squad have occasionally come up with his Kutztown teammates over the last four years.

Memories like Hohlfeld’s nap or Weller stonewalling Kirilloff at home plate as he tried to stretch a triple into an inside the park home run will continue to stick with that group. But so will memories of their college careers.

“We won a bunch of big games, lost some games,” Longacre said of his career at Goshen. “In the end, most of what you remember is the guys and what you remember about them.”

“It’s a whole new level. It’s a whole new type of game,” Weller said of his time at Kutztown. “There were a couple games that I played in college where there were some moments that I really remember just as much as I did during that state run my senior season.”

Hohlfeld, who has a 4.60 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 131 innings over the last three years, has another season left at Jefferson, and for the second straight summer is set to go to Michigan to play in the Northwoods League, one of the top wooden bat summer leagues for college baseball players. Kreitz and Peers also have baseball left in their college careers.

Weller and Longacre will be moving on from baseball after the coronavirus pandemic ended their senior seasons. Back issues that have plagued Weller, who played in 40 games in his first two seasons at Kutztown, since his sophomore year of high school finally made him give up the sport after appearing in just two games the past two seasons. He has been a part of the Army National Guard since arriving at college and hopes to continue into military service.

Ben Longacre, Goshen College

Longacre, a career .333 hitter with 40 doubles, 11 homers and 59 RBI in 150 college games, was leading Goshen in batting average (.361) after 18 games. While he said the NAIA is likely to extend him and the other seniors an extra year of eligibility, he is going to stay out near Goshen, where he has a job lined up as an auditing associate at an accounting firm that begins in the fall.

Pinder, who missed his entire junior year and parts of his sophomore season due to injury, played 45 games in four years at Kutztown, hitting .303 in his career with 37 hits and 24 RBI.

He is still undecided on whether he will return to school for another year or join the workforce, but he would like to stay in baseball either way as a coach, like his father Jeff, an assistant at Kutztown. Pinder, who was an assistant for the Boyertown Bear Paws in 2018 and then for a travel program in West Chester in 2019, has aspirations of coaching at the professional level someday.

“We talked about a lot once we’re done college just playing again together somewhere, somehow,” Pinder said of his 2016 teammates. “I still think we all want to play together at some point.”

There is a sign on the fence at Bear Stadium commemorating the 2016 team and a banner in the gym at Boyertown listing the school’s three state championship squads (1981, 1991, 2016).

While many of the seniors are good friends and still frequently stay in touch, the 2016 team hasn’t officially had any type of reunion since they left the field with state gold four years ago.

“I don’t know if there are any plans to get together like that, but it would be really cool if they would make that happen,” Longacre said. “I know all the guys would love it, getting to see each other again and I’m sure a lot of other people would like it to.”

“That shared memory just banded everyone who was there together,” Hohlfeld said.

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