HOLLIDAYSBURG — It was inevitable that a team filled with speedy baseball players aptly named the Red Tornado would come out flying in the first round of the PIAA baseball tournament.
Unfortunately for J.P. McCaskey, the State College Little Lions were well prepared and came out throwing.
The Little Lions, sparked by a relentless offense and buoyed by a stifling defense that picked off two steal attempts in the first inning, thumped the Red Tornado 9-3 at Hollidaysburg High School in an opening round game in the Class AAAA field on Monday.
It was the first PIAA win for the Little Lions since 2007.
“The last game, the District (6) championship was our main goal. That was it because the last two years, we lost out the first game of districts twice,” senior slugger Dan Fry said. “Winning districts was the big thing. This is just kind of adding on top of it, the icing on the cake.”
Now, the Little Lions (17-6) will have a chance to apply more. They’ll face Lower Dauphin in the second round on Thursday.
State College’s trip to the second round seemed nearly secure midway through its game with District 3 third-seed J.P. McCaskey, after the Red Tornado’s earliest scoring chances were thwarted stylishly by the Little Lions.
In the top of the first, Miguel Torres singled to start the game and State College starter Ben Finlan hit Billy Helm to put two Red Tornado runners on. But after Finlan struck out Aaron Taylor, Torres was picked off second base on a heads-up throw from catcher Jason Costa.
McCaskey leadoff-hitter Lazaro Duvergel drove a ball to deep center field but Fry snagged it off the fence and relayed to second baseman Nick Smith who threw Helm out at home plate to end the inning.
“Both of those plays in the first inning were big,” State College coach Bill Tussey said. “We knew they were going to be aggressive like that. We were able to set the tone early and we were able to get those outs. That was really huge. That took momentum away from them right away.”
It was the start of fantastic day for Smith on an afternoon where nearly every Little Lion player shined.
Smith finished with two hits in three at bats, both doubles, and drove in two runs on a ball wired to right field in the bottom of the second. In addition, all but one player in the State College lineup collected at least one hit, seven scored runs and six knocked in runners. Caleb Walls and Fry also finished with two RBIs.
Finlan went the distance and gave up just four hits. All three of the runs against him were unearned and all three came in the only inning that featured blemishes from State College.
“Today was a team day, offensively,” Tussey said. “Up and down the lineup I think everybody contributed something at some point. Those to be honest are coaches wishes. We had little glitch there in the third inning but they put it behind them and played solid baseball.”
A two-RBI double from Herncane in the first followed RBI hits from Fry, Walls and Smith in the second gave State College a 4-3 lead heading into the third. Soon the Little Lions chased McCaskey starter James Hartman from the mound.
State College shortstop Calvin Sichler rebooted his team’s offense. He drew a walk with one out then Ken Craig hit one of six doubles for the Little Lions to move Sichler to third. Tanner Witter followed with a single to center to plate Sichler and McCaskey coach Dave Hinnenkamp opted to remove Hartman.
Duvergel entered but Walls hit a sacrfice fly that scored Craig. State College kept the offense coming when Smith drew a walk and Fry singled to plate Witter and increase State College’s lead to 8-3. Herncane flew out to end the inning but the necessary damage had been done.
“We took advantage of what he did wrong but we were also hitting really well that it wasn’t just a pitcher’s ballgame with mistakes,” Fry said.
Duvergel would settle down and hold State College to just four hits and one run the rest of the way. But Finlan had settled in by then, too.
The State College righty retired 12 of the next 14 hitters he faced including three by strikeouts.
“I was just pitching and my defense was doing really good behind me so I knew that they’d be doing that the whole game,” Finlan said. “And I just kept it going, getting the run support obviously helped a lot.”