The sun was starting to set as Bellefonte coach Dan Fravel, an assistant coach and three players wrapped up a meeting in the home dugout.
It was April 14, and the Red Raiders’ record had slipped to 1-7 more than an hour earlier.
The meeting started shortly after a loss to Philipsburg-Osceola and lasted until nearly 8 p.m. Fravel talked to his players about the state of the team, assistant coach Steve Launse talked about everyone grinding to get better on a daily basis, the players voiced their thoughts and concerns. It was part problem-solving session, part trust-building exercise for the first-year coach and his senior captains Dom Masullo, Nick Jabco and Kyler Mellott.
“I think it released the pressure a little bit,” Jabco said. “I think we were a little bit nervous around coach because he was a new guy coming in. But I think once we got to talk to him and we got to talk about how we play and how he coaches, we could figure out how to win.”
Bellefonte responded with a three-game winning streak and finished the season on a roll. Now, the fifth-seeded Red Raiders are 11-11 and riding a season-best four-game winning streak into the District 6 Class AAA championship game against second-seeded Hollidaysburg on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona.
Bellefonte fell 4-3 to Hollidaysburg in eight innings in early May.
Some of Bellefonte’s issues at the start of the season stemmed from trying to get back to the title game. The Red Raiders beat Somerset 2-1 to win the district championship last year, and Jabco said the team thought it had to repeat this year.
The pressure weighed on the team.
The losses started to pile up.
“We didn’t have fun our first six games,” Masullo said. “I can tell you that. The first game we won, it didn’t really feel like it.”
There were chemistry issues as Fravel shifted lineups and players’ positions while getting to know them. The coach was still learning about his “loose bunch” of players and their personalities. The players were trying to impress their new coach and still adjusting to his fundamental approach to baseball.
“Finding a balance between a structured practice and a loose environment is kind of where we were earlier in the season,” Fravel said.
When the the Red Raiders fell to 1-7, Fravel and his captains had that long talk.
Fravel wanted to see them take ownership of the team. He also wanted to see them relax.
The players pushed their thoughts of the district championship to the back of their minds and started to have fun.
They added games like pepper to their pregame routine.
“It just keeps everything loose so you’re not just sitting in the dugout waiting for the game to start,” said Masullo, the team’s ace who boasts a 2.32 ERA.
Chemistry improved as players gained an understanding of their roles.
Adam Armstrong, a left-hander, emerged to bolster the pitching staff. Dylan Deitrich played solid defense at shortstop. Cade Fortney provided an offensive spark late in the season.
The Red Raiders put the early-season slump behind them and went into the district playoffs with confidence.
They cruised past Greater Johnstown 12-2 in five innings in the first round, led by Masullo and Mellott on the mound and a 12-hit day for the offense. And they beat top-seeded Somerset 2-0 in the semifinals, thanks to a dominant pitching performance by Armstrong and Masullo, and just enough offense.
“Hitters have been the last piece of the puzzle that keeps slowly coming around,” Fravel said.
The Red Raiders have gradually improved throughout the season.
Now, they can think about repeating as district champions after earning their return trip to Altoona.
“Lucky enough, we started winning games and now we’re here again,” Jabco said.