State College’s Jason Costa strolled confidently to the plate in the eighth inning with Darian Herncane on first base and the District 6 Class AAAA baseball title game tied at 2-2.
The senior’s mind raced, furiously calculating what Central Mountain’s devilishly good hurler Von Walker would cook up on the mound.
“Well I know he doesn’t want to fall behind me,” Costa said. “I also know he has Darian on first, so if I hit a drive in the gap he’s probably going to score.”
“And I also know that he’s started me off with off speed stuff in my other at bats. All odds were fastball, first pitch — and I got it.”
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Costa drilled the pitch to left, scoring Herncane from first and giving State College the win — and the district crown — with a 3-2 win over Central Mountain at Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona.
“This is my first district title in my State High career and it was just pure joy,” Costa said emotionally. “I can’t even I just wanted to scream and I did scream. I was just so happy. Just pure joy.”
Costa went 2-for-4, and drove in all three State College runs.
The Little Lions (16-6) have spent much of this season teetering on the line between brilliance and breakdown but have found ways to win.
The district title game was no different.
State College made some critical miscues and even gave away a golden opportunity late before ultimately spoiling Walker’s brilliance behind its own stellar mound work from left-hander Nick Raquet.
“That’s the way these guys seem to like to play,” said State College head coach Bill Tussey. “The pressure just seems to get them a little bit more focused.”
Dan Fry ignited the State College offense in the fourth with a lead off triple hit down the right field line. After Herncane walked next, Costa singled home both to give the Little Lions a 2-0 lead.
Central Mountain would respond with two runs in the fifth courtesy of two walks by Raquet and a lapse in focus on a throwing error by Ed Goodall at first.
Focus is what Walker had in spades on the mound although Raquet struck him out three times at the plate (0-for-4, RBI).
The senior, usually heavy-handed hurler, used finesse instead to masterfully keep State College off balance.
“Von was smart today,” Tussey said. “He changed his attack against us. Very few fastballs. He was throwing breaking stuff and our guys were out in front. He pitched a heck of a ball game. And Nick did too. Two guys that basically weren’t going to give in.”
Each pitcher surrendered just six hits. Only two hits — Costa’s double and a triple by Dan Fry (2-for-4, run scored) — were hit hard by either side.
Walker (4-2) struck out 12 and allowed three runs on six hits and three walks.
He also authored an incredible Houdini act in the seventh when he stranded Calvin Sichler at third after the State College shortstop led off the inning with a triple.
Conventional wisdom may have been to walk the bases loaded to force an out at any base, however Central Mountain’s head coach Michael Kramer had supreme confidence in his ace.
“That’s truly what I felt,” Kramer said. “At that point we felt that he was handling that part of the order and I thought if he got on top he would be able to work his stuff and get the put outs.”
Walker struck out the next two Little Lions and induced a pop up from Caleb Walls (1-for-4) to end the inning.
State College’s missed opportunity seemed to energize the Wildcats as they sprinted jubilantly off the field.
Raquet noticed. The junior also knew he needed to step up.
Raquet (5-2) pitched all eight innings and allowed just two runs on six scattered hits, five walks and eight strikeouts.
“I always say you have to have a shutdown inning,” Raquet said. “You need to take the momentum back it’s a momentum game, so you have to have it to win.”
He made short work of the Wildcats in the eighth and paved the way for Costa’s clutch hit in the bottom half.
That’s been the Little Lions in a nutshell. A resilient team that digs itself holes but manages to navigate out — usually in dramatic fashion.
State College will face District 3’s third place team on Monday at a time and place to be determined.
Whenever and wherever they play, it seems Raquet at least has one goal in sight.
“State title,” Raquet said. “I want that state title really bad. I know these guys want it and I want to do it for our seniors. They’ve worked hard all season. We’ve had a great season and I think we should cap it off with a state title. We have the guys to do it.”