STATE COLLEGE — Revenge can be a strong motivator in sports, but what happens when each team can draw upon its power?
When top-seeded State College faces No. 3 seed Central Mountain for Wednesday’s District 6 Class AAAA final, the Little Lions will seek to avenge last season’s playoff defeat, while the Wildcats look to even the score from a loss earlier this season.
“In all honesty it would be nice to get a little bit of revenge, but for the seniors to get that district crown is really important,” State College coach Bill Tussey said after last week’s district semifinal victory over Altoona. “This would be (my) first senior class not to win a district if we don’t get a win. So I know that they want that bad. … The fact that it’s Central Mountain and they can get a little bit of revenge on top of that just makes it a little bit sweeter.”
Retribution might be in the minds of both teams when they meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday at People’s Natural Gas Field in Altoona, but ultimately the game will come down to which pitching staff can tame the other’s potent offense.
Nick Raquet, a hard-throwing lefty, will get the start for State College, while Von Walker will likely get the nod for Central Mountain.
State College (15-6) owns a balanced attack that scores 6.6 runs per game and has nine players with 10 or more hits and eight players with 10 or more RBIs.
Tanner Whitter leads the team with a .373 batting average. Dan Fry is first in hits with 26 and Darian Herncane is tops with 16 RBIs.
Central Mountain (11-10) also has several weapons. Michael Kramer’s team averages 7.4 runs per game and has 10 players with 10 or more hits and seven with 10 or more RBIs.
Raquet (4-2) is a senior with a strong fastball that’s made more potent by a sharp-breaking curve. He befuddled Altoona last week, striking out seven in four innings before rain forced the conclusion to be played without him on Friday.
The southpaw leads State College in strikeouts with 58 and owns a team-best 1.67 ERA. Perhaps most impressively, teams are hitting just .158 in his eight appearances this season.
The key to his stingy numbers has been keeping the ball down in the strike zone, which helps to induce ground balls. With that approach, Raquet’s defense will also figure prominently.
“Last time we played it was fairly high scoring and we took advantage of some defensive lapses on their part … and that’s the other part that’s going to big (today)…” Tussey said. “With Nick we get a lot of ground balls so we have to make those plays behind him.”
When the teams met in early May, State College survived an early deficit — and six errors by its defense — to earn a 9-7 victory that extended its winning streak to nine.
It also survived a strong start by Walker, who dominated early until he rattled late after his defense made two critical errors in the fourth.
Walker paces the Wildcats’ attack on both sides of the ball.
He leads the team in nearly every offensive category and is also its ace hurler. The senior is tops in batting average (.450), hits (27), RBIs (23) and home runs (three).
State College is likely to pitch cautiously to Walker as it did in May when the protection around him came through with mixed results.
Cayden Stover — Central Mountain’s junior shortstop — hits behind Walker and also shares the team’s RBI lead at 23. However, he had only modest success (1-for-4) in the teams’ first meeting.
Senior second baseman Johnny Wise (.444), however, hurt State College behind Stover with two singles and an RBI.
Whether he’s protected at the plate or not, Walker’s defense will certainly have to help him on the mound.
Walker owns a team-best 1.75 ERA and his only loss came against State College. His defense is usually strong, making just 28 errors compared to 37 for State College.
The broad-shouldered right-hander throws a dominant fastball that he couples with a late-breaking curve that sometimes causes batters to bail from the box.
Tussey’s tactic in previous meetings was to work Walker deep into counts to sap his potency in the later innings.
Today will be no different.
“We’re going to attempt that again (today),” Tussey said. “We’ll see how it goes and if we have to we’ll make adjustments on the fly. But that’s going to be the goal. We want to make him work as much as we can.”
Walker was previously chased after 92 pitches during State College’s pivotal five-run sixth inning.
Both teams enter with something to prove and a district title in the balance.
Last season, Central Mountain edged State College 7-6 in the quarterfinals and went on to fall to Altoona 2-1 in the title game.
This season, State College sounds like a confident team that isn’t afraid of Walker or the Wildcats.
“Obviously we’re going to go really hard, but we also know we have more than enough talent to beat them,” Fry said last week. “They’ve shown they’re a good team, and we’re obviously going to be facing Von, but there’s nothing really that we’ve seen that we shouldn’t be able to handle. … Last year we just didn’t play our game and this year we’re playing our game all the time so that’s just something that we shouldn’t worry about.”