State College’s Jake Hillard sprinted to the mound after the final out Wednesday — extending three fingers to signify his team’s third straight district title — and piled on top of his smiling and screaming teammates.
The Little Lions (9-10) poured a Gatorade cooler full of water on their coach. Players bit into their gold District 6 Class 6A medals. And some just stared at the scoreboard, which showed a 7-3 win over Altoona (10-7) at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
This is what Hillard, and the Little Lions, waited for all season. But it didn’t come easy — not for Hillard nor State College.
“We’ve been through so much this season,” said Hillard, a junior right fielder. “We’ve had our ups and downs and, to finally be here and get that last out, it was amazing.”
State College watched itself get walked off in three straight games to end the regular season. But it bounced back to beat Mifflin County in the district semifinals and earned a ticket to Wednesday’s title game. On Wednesday, Hillard misjudged a ball in the third frame — the official scorekeeper did not rule it an error — and watched two Altoona players cross home as a result. (State College led 5-3 at that point.)
But Hillard didn’t give up, either. And he ended up making one of the biggest plays of the game.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, with two men on and State College nursing a two-run lead, Altoona sent a screaming line drive straight toward Hillard. It bounced, Hillard scooped it up — and then time seemed to slow down as Altoona leadoff man Adam Sinisi rounded third. “Everyone’s yelling ‘Home!’ and I see him rounding third base, so I thought I might have a play,” Hillard said. “So I thought I’d let it go and hope for the best.”
Hillard took a step forward and hurled the ball as hard as he could. It bounced once, then stuck right into catcher Tyson Cooper’s mitt for the bang-bang out at home. Altoona’s manager came out to argue the call, but it did no good. State College erupted.
“That just shows how mentally tough he is,” Cooper said. “When it mattered, he really stepped up and made a big throw in a big-time game.”
Added pitcher David Shoemaker: “At the end of the game, I gave him the gameball. He came up when we needed him. That was the game-changer.”
Without that throw, State College’s lead would’ve shrunk to 5-4 and the inning would’ve continued for Altoona. Instead, the Little Lions added two more insurance runs in the next frame and cruised.
State College coach Jeremy Dinsmore and several of his players pointed to that play as the game’s turning point. But, of course, it wasn’t just that play that led to Wednesday’s celebration, where family members spilled onto the field and the clicking of cameras blended into the applause.
Cooper, Shoemaker and Jack Hurley finished with two hits apiece. (Cooper added two RBIs.) And, on the mound, Shoemaker finished with two strikeouts and three walks in addition to allowing seven hits and three earned runs.
Wednesday’s win was a team effort. But, in a lot of ways, Hillard’s ability to bounce back told the story of the season for the Little Lions. Even when there were doubts, they continued to push ahead until good things happened.
And they’re looking for that to continue next week, most likely May 30, against the District 10 champ in a subregional game. The winner moves on to the state tournament — and State College isn’t about to give up now.
“Personally, my confidence is back up,” Hillard said.
Added Shoemaker: “I think we can beat anyone when we’re playing our best baseball.”