State College played sure-handed defense all season and knew it would be crucial to making a deep run in the state tournament.
But the Little Lions had some problems in the field in one inning that proved to be a turning point in their 8-5 loss to Shaler in a PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal game Thursday at First Commonwealth Field in Homer City.
State College lost two fly balls in the lights, allowing them to drop in for hits and spark a four-run fourth inning by the Titans. Shaler scored the first two runs on the two fly balls and pushed the final two across on a squeeze bunt and wild pitch.
Shaler turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead that it would never relinquish.
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“By the time you get to this point, everybody’s good,” State College coach Bill Tussey said. “I mean there are no weak teams at this point. So if you have that one off game, like we were just a little off on a couple plays, particularly defensively tonight, you’re done.”
It marked the end of another memorable season for the Little Lions, who captured their third straight District 6 Class AAAA title and took a 10-game winning streak into Thursday night.
Shaler advances to the semifinals to take on North Penn on Monday at a site and time to be announced. North Penn beat Pennsbury 2-1 in its quarterfinal game Thursday.
Titan starter Gavin Cannon battled through 5 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on five hits and striking out nine to earn the win.
“He’s a stud, he’s been going seven innings for us all year,” Shaler coach Brian Junker said. “His fastball was moving this much, his curveball was buckling knees.”
The Titans jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second inning.
Shaler’s Nick Fugh led off with a single and stole second during Noah Seelhorst’s at bat. After Seelhorst struck out, Anthony Venizia lined a single down the right field line that got past Caleb Walls.
Fugh scored on the play, and Venizia raced to third. Venizia then scored on a groundout by Andrew Mueller to make it 2-0.
Cannon rolled through the bottom half, striking out the side in order.
But he ran into trouble in the third.
State College scored four runs on four hits to take a 4-2 lead.
After Tucker Triebold and Ben Shawley led off with back-to-back singles, Brandon Raquet laid down a bunt that Cannon threw away. Triebold scored on the error.
Shawley then tied it when he scored on a wild pitch. Raquet advanced to third on the play and scored on a ground ball by Chris Adams, who reached on an error and later stole second. Sam Plafcan drove in Adams on a single up the middle to make it 4-2.
Shaler responded immediately with its own four-run inning in the top of the fourth.
“We battled and here’s what I like the best,” Junker said. “We got down to an amazing State College team. Back in Pittsburgh, that’s all you hear about State College baseball and they are, they’re a great team.
“My kids get down and it’s like, so what? Next pitch. And that’s what we preach and they just play every pitch and I thought they did a great job battling every pitch.”
With runners on first and second and one out, Shaler’s Andrew Mueller sent a fly ball to center field.
Raquet lost it in the lights, allowing it to drop for a single to score a run. Adam Zulka followed with another fly ball to deep center and it dropped in for a double to tie it 4-4.
“He gets those two very easily,” Tussey said of the speedy Raquet. “Those are routine for him. He loses them in the lights. We should have come out of that inning 4-3, he catches both those balls. Three outs. We’re out of the inning.
“At that point, then all of the sudden, it’s a different game,” Tussey said. “But hey, that’s baseball.”
Shaler took the lead on a squeeze bunt by Noah Hernandez and went ahead 6-4 on a wild pitch.
The Little Lions managed just two hits in the final four innings.
“I told them when we gathered at the end, I’m as proud or more proud of this group as any team I’ve coached,” Tussey said. “Even in this game, they never gave up. They always kept trying. There was no give-in, so this is a special team.”