Seven games into the season, State College’s Caleb Walls needed to change his approach at the plate and he needed some help to do it.
Walls admits he was trying to pull the ball and hit home runs rather than sticking to what had been so successful for him in the past. And he was struggling as a result, hitting .136 at that point.
During the team’s eighth game, against McDowell, State College assistant coach Rick Hall provided the help, asking Walls for one goal for each at bat besides getting a hit.
If there was a runner on base, Walls aimed to move him over. If there was a runner on third with less than two outs, he aimed to drive him in. If the bases were empty, he just aimed to hit the ball hard.
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“I just remember that,” Walls said of that game. “That was when he (Hall) was like, ‘It doesn’t matter if you go 0-for-4, you have one goal for each at bat and if you accomplish that goal every time, you had a 4-for-4 day.’”
The small goals helped Walls work out of his slump, and the senior outfielder has caught fire in the postseason. Walls has gone 7-for-12 (.583) and scored at least once in all four playoff games to lead the Little Lions offensively during their run to the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals, where they will take on Shaler (19-5) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at First Commonwealth Field in Homer City.
Shaler, the third-place team out of District 7, advanced to the quarterfinals with a 3-1 win over district champion Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the first round Monday.
State College (19-5) edged Norwin 4-3 in 10 innings in the first round to push its winning streak to 10 games.
Walls, who is headed to George Mason, felt pressure to perform coming off a successful junior campaign.
“He had high expectations for himself, which he should have,” State College coach Bill Tussey said. “But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially with the kind of competition we play. I think now it’s just he’s a senior, it’s crunch time and he’s just settling in.”
Walls led the team in hitting and earned first-team Mid Penn Conference Commonwealth division honors in 2014.
But he got away from his approach at the start of this season.
He said he was trying to do much instead of focusing on hitting the ball on the ground and using his speed to get on base.
His slow start turned into a prolonged slump.
“After a few 0-for-4 games, I started to get down on myself a bit,” Walls said. “And that’s when coach Hall and coach Tussey, they were always there just giving me words of encouragement, helping me through my struggles.”
When he started setting small goals for each at bat, he started to build up small successes.
Against McDowell, he went 2 for 4 for his first multi-hit game of the year.
He started to heat up in the last week of the regular season, putting together a four-game hitting streak. And he’s been a catalyst for the Little Lions in the district and state playoffs.
In the district championship game against Altoona, Walls doubled, tripled and scored twice. In the team’s PIAA play-in game against DuBois, he was 3 for 4 with a triple and two RBIs.
“He’s not pressing, trying to do too much,” Tussey said. “Now it’s just get on base, hit the ball hard the other way, or hit the ball hard somewhere and just focus on that.
“He doesn’t have to hit a three-run homer with nobody on.”
That approach was on display against Norwin.
Walls, a lefty, lined a double into the left-center field gap in the first inning. He used his speed to beat out a ground ball to first base for an infield single and later scored from first on a double by Sam Plafcan in the third.
His .219 batting average during the regular season is a distant memory now.
“After struggling the whole season, to heat up now when it matters the most is really all that counts,” Walls said. “I just got to forget the regular season.”
Walls and State College have captured the district title, won a state play-in game and survived a 10-inning first-round game.
And now they’re two wins away from reaching the state championship game at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
“I’ve been with most of these guys since Little League and ever since then, we’ve had one goal: to win a state championship,” Walls said. “We’ve worked hard for years for this and just to see it start to pay off is just great.”