A few of State College’s most experienced baseball players have been here before.
It’s just been awhile.
Three years have passed since their last trip to the PIAA Class AAAA tournament, and you’d have to delve back even farther to read about the Little Lions’ last PIAA triumph.
Darian Herncane, Dan Fry, Jason Costa and 10 other State College seniors were in middle school when the Little Lions beat Council Rock North in the PIAA quarterfinals in 2007 before falling to eventual state champion Senneca Valley in the semifinals.
Now, Herncane, Fry and Costa will lead a new group of Little Lions on a fresh PIAA quest, one that begins with a first-round game against J.P. McCaskey at Hollidaysburg High School at 4 p.m. Monday.
“We’ve had some pretty focused practices,” State College coach Bill Tussey said of his team, which won a District 6 title against Central Mountain on Wednesday. “They’re pretty much excited about the opportunity to play.”
That chance will come when the District 6 champion Little Lions (16-6) tangle with the Red Tornado, the consolation game winners in the District 3 bracket. J.P. McCaskey (15-9) beat Dallastown 6-1 on Thursday to secure its spot in the state tournament.
State College’s pathway to the big dance hasn’t been too dissimilar from it’s 2010 run that featured contributions from Herncane, Fry and Costa in a backup role. Then, the Little Lions edged Central Mountain in the semifinal round in the District tournament before battering Hollidaysburg 9-1 for the district title.
This season, the Little Lions dominated Altoona in a game that required two days to complete after rain slowed up the first day. State College followed that up with a 3-2 win in eight innings over Central Mountain for another district title.
“You can never really predict what’s going to happen when you hit the tournaments. And I think this has been kind of the typical, unpredictable year,” Tussey said. “You have a couple of those seniors that were on that 2010 team. The 2010 team, we made a little bit of a run there through the playoffs and that was not a whole lot different from this year where you had a couple of tight games and then you had to scratch, then you blew one out and you didn’t expect to.”
Tussey is hoping his team will be prepared to play well out of the gate with five days between games.
Although the Little Lions got contributions up and down the order in their offensive assault against Altoona, the Little Lions weren’t able to carry the same offensive punch through their game against Central Mountain. Compared to the Altoona game in which seven of nine State College batters notched hits, only Fry, Costa, junior Calvin Sichler and sophomore Caleb Walls were able to put bats on balls against the Wildcats.
Tussey thinks hits may be tough to find again Monday against the Red Tornado.
“You talk to some folks that have played them that you know and you just pick up tidbits,” Tussey said. “We know they have some speed. We know in the middle of their lineup they have some pretty strong hitters. We know they have a good left-handed pitcher.”
That lefty is James Hartman, who’s 8-2 on the season and could start after pitching a win against Dallastown on Thursday.
Senior Ben Finlan (5-2) is expected to start for State College.
While Tussey knows his team will likely be in for a tight game, he feels his team has experienced enough tough lefty pitchers this season to be ready for Hartman should he get the nod. J.P. McCaskey coach Dave Hinnenkamp could not be reached Sunday night.
“We certainly saw the (Seth) Wagner boy from Mifflin County and we’ve seen a couple of other left-handers along the way,” Tussey said. “It won’t be something that they haven’t seen. Now, everybody’s a little bit different. This kid is looking like he’s having a pretty nice year so we’ll have to see what kind of stuff he brings and probably will have to do some adjustments during the game.”
Tussey also is hoping Herncane, Fry and Costa will be able to provide the spark required of them, moreso than when they found themselves here as freshmen three seasons ago.
So far in the postseason, Herncane, Fry and Costa have combined to go 8-for-21 (.381) with six runs scored and nine RBIs for State College.
“That’s what you hope that your seniors do for you, particularly those that have been there before,” Tussey said. “But you hope that they elevate their play knowing that it is their last opportunity at least in high school and the seniors have done a very good job of that.”