YOUTH LEGION: Kovacik's dream season ends with tough loss
PUNXSUTAWNEY — It surely didn’t diminish the tremendous feats it reached this summer, but Kovacik Insurance saw its season come to a shocking and painful end Sunday.
A day removed from their first setback of the season, the Giants squandered an early four-run lead, allowed seven runs in the second inning and went out quietly with an 8-5 loss to Norwin PAL in an elimination game of the Pennsylvania Youth American Legion Western Regional Tournament at Rich Kuntz Memorial Field.
The Giants (22-2) finished the Indiana County regular season and playoffs unbeaten when they completed a series sweep of host-team I-Medical in the county playoffs on July 16.
Kovacik Insurance got nipped by Farmington, 3-2 in nine innings, in its first game of the tournament on Saturday.
The winners’ bracket game between I-Medical and Hempfield East was postponed due to inclement weather. The game was scheduled to be played at 10 a.m. today.
The top three teams in the double-elimination tournament advance to the five-day Pennsylvania Youth American Legion state championships, which begin Aug. 2 in Freemansburg.
“I think we were a little tight yesterday. We should have hit the ball better,” Kovacik Insurance coach Dan Shirley said. “But today we had a 5-1 lead, and then we made three or four errors. They scored seven runs in the second inning, and it was all errors. The inning should have been one, two, three, and it would have been done. Instead, they scored seven runs.”
Kovacik Insurance momentarily pulled ahead in a tied game in the top of the second inning, plating four runs on three hits, two walks and a hit batsman.
However, seconds before the Giants scored their last run of the four-run rally, a pair of collisions occurred near home plate that resulted in the ejection of one of Kovacik Insurance’s top players, shortstop Ricky Shirley.
With one out and the bases loaded, Omar Ward cracked a chopper to shortstop Jake Deemer, who fielded the ground ball cleanly and fired home in time to get lead runner John Fetchko for a force out.
But the play didn’t end there, and Ricky Shirley, who had been on second, rounded third following the force out and got caught in a rundown between third base and home.
Shirley weaved toward home and plowed over catcher Ryan Anselmino, who was standing directly in the base path without the ball. Anselmino was ultimately called for catcher’s interference, which resulted in a run scored for Shirley, but the play still didn’t conclude there.
An instant after knocking Anselmino to the ground, Shirley kept sprinting toward home and shoved pitcher Chad Coles in similar fashion in front of the plate umpire. A brief war of words ensued between fans and coaches. Eventually, the umpire decided to eject Shirley.
“There was a play at home, and I think he (Ricky Shirley) thought they were going to try to double him because (Ward) was having trouble running,” Dan Shirley said. “He thought they were going to first, and it was a judgment call. I let the kids do that (because) we run them a lot. Sometimes you just run yourself into bad positions.”
Noah Redy clubbed a two-run triple over the head of Fetchko in center to trim the Giants’ lead to 5-3 in the bottom of the second. Kovacik Insurance committed the first of two straight errors on the next at-bat to allow Redy to score and make it a 5-4 game. Alex Sinegra scored two batters later on a wild pitch from Fairman to tie the game. Coles then smacked a two-run single that gave Norwin a 7-5 lead.
Tyler Critchfield finished the rally by stroking an RBI double that extended Norwin’s lead to 8-5.
Kovacik Insurance and Norwin each mustered just three hits following the second inning, and neither team managed to score a run.
Coles, the winning pitcher, struck out five and walked three in the last five innings. He retired the side in the top of the seventh, striking out cleanup hitter Bubba Seitz to end the game.
“If we would have shown up, and the team would have put 20 runs on us, I would have rather lost like that than lose making errors and walking people,” Dan Shirley said. “That does hurt (because) that’s what we take pride in, and that’s what we’ve always wanted to do is make the other team beat us and not give it to them, and I feel like we gave the other team a lot more than they gave us.”
Dan Shirley pointed out that Ricky Shirley’s ejection affected Kovacik Insurance in many ways.
“He’s one of our best fielders,” Dan Shirley said of his nephew and assistant coach Rick Shirley’s son. “He started for the high school in the infield, and if he can play high school baseball, (then) he can play (Youth) Legion baseball. Plus he’s our leadoff hitter, and Omar was hurt, so that was like taking two of our top three hitters out of the lineup.
“But we didn’t lose because of umpiring. We lost because we didn’t catch the baseball and we let our emotions get the best of us. It was all self-inflicted.”
Dan Shirley’s son, Ryan, represents one of five 15-year-olds that will make the jump to Senior Legion baseball next year. Minutes after the loss, Ryan Shirley, who pitched four scoreless inning of relief, talked about the disappointment he and his fellow 15-year-olds were feeling.
“The 22-0 was really a great thing, but it doesn’t mean much to me since we lost two games straight at regionals,” Shirley said. “Our goal all season was to go states. Hopefully next year most of us 15-year-olds will go up to play Senior Legion, (and) since most of us are from Blairsville, we’ll all play high school baseball together. This will probably be a big lesson that you can’t go into anything thinking you’re great because of your record.”
Dan Shirley said after the loss that he will step down as the team’s coach. The third-year coach said he might join Kovacik Insurance’s Senior Legion coaching staff, but he’s yet to work out any details with the team’s sponsor.
PHOTO: Kovacik Insurance coach Dan Shirley, wearing sunglasses, gathered his team one last time after it was eliminated from the Pennsylvania Youth Legion Western Regional Tournament on Sunday in Punxsutawney. (James J. Nestor/Gazette photo)