District 1 Baseball: Bats come alive as Strath Haven seals states spots

NETHER PROVIDENCE – Sam Milligan’s reputation as a decorated three-sport athlete gives him leeway to say certain things in a straightforward, no-nonsense fashion.

“Ever since halfway through the season, we have been struggling with the bats, no doubt,” said the senior, recently named the Male Athlete of the Year by the Delaware County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. “Our mentality was to just survive and rely on our pitching.”

Strath Haven displayed a great approach at the plate in its shutout win over Phoenixville in the District 1 Class 5A quarterfinals Wednesday. The third-seeded Panthers carried over their success at the dish into Friday’s semifinal showdown against No. 10 Rustin.

Will Thompson lays down a bunt that turned into a fielders’ choice in the eight-run second inning as Strath Haven topped West Chester Rustin, 11-5, in the District 1 Class 5A semifinal Friday. (PETE BANNAN-DAILY TIMES)

An eight-run second inning spurred the Panthers to an 11-5 victory and a spot in the District 1 Class 5A final for a third consecutive year. Coach Brian Fili’s team will meet reigning champion and No. 1 seed Upper Dublin in a rematch of last year’s title game Tuesday at Villanova Ballpark in Plymouth Meeting.

“Now it’s time to rely on our bats and get aggressive,” said Milligan, who went 2-for-3 and with an RBI double. “We were here last year, and the seniors were here the year before. We’ve been here, we have the experience, and a lot of these other teams don’t have that. We have faith in our guys.”

Rustin grabbed an early 1-0 lead off sophomore Luke D’Ancona, who was celebrating his 16th birthday. Milligan ignited the big rally with a leadoff single against Rustin starter Jason Feorino, who was bounced from the game after recording only four outs. Nick Corritore followed with a rocket down the left-field line, and Milligan came around to score when the ball was misplayed by left fielder Ben Murphy.

Haven kept the pressure on. A sacrifice bunt was perfectly placed by Will Thompson, a fielder’s choice that resulted in Rustin getting no outs.

D’Ancona then hit a sacrifice fly to put the Panthers (18-4) in front, 2-1. Ben Milligan smoked a pitch to left field for an RBI single, and Alex Pak worked a bases-loaded walk to make it 4-1. Sam Milligan hit a sharp grounder that was botched by shortstop Scott Ely, enabling two more runs to score.

Strath Haven had only three hits in the inning but made every one count. They worked great at bats and did the little things correctly to put the pressure on Rustin’s defense.

Luke D’Ancona throws for Strath Haven. (PETE BANNAN-DAILY TIMES)

“I told the guys on Wednesday that even though it was only a 5-0 game, it was the best offensive approach we’ve had all season against a good solid pitcher,” Fili said. “We’ve been working really hard in practice about trying to hit the ball back through the middle, not getting out front. It’s definitely coming together and I think all that work we’re putting in is starting to pay off.”

Rustin was able to hang around and made good contact against D’Ancona, who allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits in five innings. The Golden Knights scored twice, aided by a Zane Malarkey error at shortstop, in the fourth inning. David McClain smashed a two-run double in the fifth.

Haven kept tacking on in support of the normally reliable D’Anonca, who has been splendid all season as the team’s No. 2 starter. Pak, Jake McDonough and Sam Milligan ripped three straight doubles in the fifth. Sam Milligan scored Haven’s final run on a wild pitch.

“This year we haven’t really had the bats going, but Coach Fili always stresses that if we can get the bats going we will be a tough team to beat,” said Pak, who doubled, walked and scored two runs. “We did that today. We had to back (D’Ancona) up, he struggled a little bit and really had to battle. It wasn’t a position that we have been in a lot, but we were able to bear down and get the job done.”

The All-Delco Pak, who hasn’t allowed an earned run all season, will get the start for a second straight year against Upper Dublin with the district title at stake.

Malarkey pitched two shutout innings in relief of D’Ancona. He started a 1-4-3 double play to get the Panthers out of the sixth inning unscathed. Ben Milligan took the out at second and threw the ball low to first. D’Anonca, who moved to first after he was pulled with 97 pitches and no one out in the fifth, made a spectacular dig to record the final out.

“That was a great play,” Sam Milligan said. “Luke was definitely disappointed especially since it’s his 16th birthday today. He’s pitched in so many big games for us and he shuts teams down. The only thing that matters is wins and losses and he doesn’t have any losses this year. Alex doesn’t have any losses. We focus on the wins because that’s what matters and that’s why we are here.”

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