PLYMOUTH TWP. — Sam Milligan is in the middle of every player huddle, offering words of encouragement for his teammates. That’s the quarterback in him, and leadership is in his DNA.
Strath Haven’s multi-sport star athlete has had a knack for backing up his talk with game-winning plays in championship games.
As a junior he scored the winning two-point conversion in the District 1 Class 5A football championship game. On Tuesday he delivered the go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning.
With its 7-4 win over No. 1 Upper Dublin, third-seeded Strath Haven avenged last year’s one-run loss to the Cardinals. Coach Brian Fili’s Panthers have won two of the last three District 1 Class 5A baseball titles.
“This one feels awesome,” said Milligan, who went 1-for-3 with two RBIs and provided stellar defense in center field. “This is the last sports season and I get to play with my brother (Ben) and win this with him. I love it so much.”
Sam drilled a single to the outfield with two outs in the sixth inning, chasing home Ben, who had walked and stolen second base.
“I’ve been trying not to think too much because when I think too much I end up getting myself out,” the elder Milligan said. “So I just wanted to go up there with a 0-0 count and not worry about who is on base, just go up the middle. I wasn’t even really thinking. I got a fastball (on a 1-2 count) and I thought that it was one of the best ones I saw.”
Next up was Zane Malarkey, who was looking for personal redemption. The second baseman made an error in last year’s final that allowed Upper Dublin to score the winning run. On Tuesday, Malarkey ambushed a first-pitch fastball by Will Gill, who replaced Chase Sunday in the middle of a count, for a two-run single to left field. Malarkey’s key knock gave the Panthers (19-4) a 7-4 advantage.
“I knew because it’s baseball I was going to come up today (in a big situation). But that’s what we have been waiting for all season,” Malarkey said. “This is about way more than me, it was the whole team, but the hit felt pretty good.”
“No one takes things harder than he does and I know he took that very personally last year,” Sam Milligan said of Malarkey. “He worked hard all offseason, he put on a bunch of muscle so that it wouldn’t happen again. In the end it’s still pressure, you’re still nervous, but he showed like the rest of our team that when a moment is big, we are ready to go. That is a testament to our team.”
The Panthers had coughed up a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth. Austin Dahl and Aidan McCarthy slugged back-to-back RBI doubles pull the Cardinals within a run. Then a lazy pop up off the bat of Paul Stoffel was lost in the sun by first baseman Luke D’Ancona, enabling McCarthy to score the tying run. D’Ancona would redeem himself with two innings of shutout relief to end the game.
“Keep punching back,” Malarkey said. “We know that is a really good team. They just kept hitting the ball and that’s probably the most hits we’ve given up all year. It was definitely a long game and we knew we had to keep fighting back.”
Strath Haven ace Alex Pak, who entered with a 9-0 record and 0.00 ERA, allowed nine hits and four runs (three earned) while striking out four. He gave a gutsy five-inning, 101-pitch performance.
Pak delivered a two-run double to give the Panthers a 4-1 lead in the fourth. Will Thompson began the rally with a double, and then the Panthers executed three straight bunts. D’Ancona sacrificed himself, but the Cardinals tried to nail Thompson at third base. Instead they got nobody. Ben Milligan dropped a perfect squeeze bunt to bring home D’Ancona, then Matt Kane bunted for a hit to set the stage for Pak.
The Panthers love playing small ball, they certainly do it better than any team in Delco. The Cardinals didn’t know what hit them.
Strath Haven had the bases loaded with no outs in the first, but managed to score only one run off McCarthy, who issued six walks in three rocky innings. Going into fourth the Panthers had no hits and left five runners stranded.
“We had to change something. We let an opportunity go by in the first inning, not putting a ball in play,” Strath Haven coach Brian Fili said. “I brought the guys in right before the inning and just talked to them about executing. I felt the game was getting a little too big for some guys. We’ve been in this situation before. And then we go out and execute all of those bunts, we’ve been doing that all year. That’s got us going.”
Fili was pleased with his team’s ability to stick together and respond after losing the 4-1 lead.
“The thing I’m most proud of is we kind of let it get away … but then immediately answered,” he said. “That’s a sign of a good baseball team. They could have gotten down on themselves and upset that they lost a 4-1 lead, but that’s not their mentality. They got after it and jumped right back on top and that was huge.”
D’Ancona walked McCarthy with one out in the bottom of the seventh, but struck out Stoffel and got pinch hitter Bobby Keck to pop out to Ben Milligan in shallow right to end the game.
Strath Haven will play District 3’s fourth-place team in the first round of Class 5A tournament on Monday at Neumann University. The Panthers are the only District 1 baseball team from Delco to qualify for a PIAA tournament.