YOUTH LEGION: Near-perfect performance carries perfect Kovacik
BLAIRSVILLE — The shutout would have been nice, but winning the league title sounds even better to Omar Ward.
Thanks to Ward’s masterpiece, he and his Kovacik Insurance teammates are halfway toward that goal. And if they get there undefeated, all the better.
Ward threw a complete-game five-hitter, Austin Gaston went 2-for-3 with three RBIs, and Kovacik Insurance dumped I-Medical, 4-1, in the opening game of the Indiana County Youth Legion championship series at spacious WyoTech Park on Tuesday evening.
Ward carried a shutout into the seventh inning, but I-Medical scratched out an unearned run in its final at-bat to avoid the shutout.
With two outs and a runner on second base in the top of the seventh, I-Medical leadoff hitter Tyler Richardson hit a lazy fly ball to shallow left field, and it dropped between three Kovacik fielders to allow I-Medical to score its lone run.
Admittedly, Ward wanted the shutout, but he won’t lose sleep over it.
“I wanted it pretty bad,” Ward said. “I thought they had it, but there was a little confusion. It happens. But we got the last out, and we got the win so that’s all that matters.”
Kovacik Insurance coach Dan Shirley wasn’t as quick to forget the error that led to I-Medical’s lone run, knowing that against top competition at the regional tournament in two weeks, a play like that could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
“I went out there and ripped them a little bit,” Shirley said, “because there were a couple plays that we should have made that we didn’t make because we were expecting someone else to do something. Just play right. If we show up tomorrow, and they play better than us and we lose, I’ll shake their hand. But I don’t want to lose a game where we don’t make plays we should make. That bothers me worse than anything: making a play we should have made. That’s what we preach: throw strikes and catch the baseball. And that last inning, we walked a couple guys, dropped a ball we should have caught, and that bothers me worse than anything. But we’ve done well. If we only give up one run a game, I’ll be happy.”
After becoming the first Indiana County Youth Legion team in 24 years to go undefeated in the regular season, Kovacik Insurance (21-0) hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs. The Giants have won all three playoff games and have a chance to enter the Western Regional tournament with a spotless 22-0 mark if they can complete a sweep of I-Medical today.
Nice as that would be, it’s not a point of emphasis for Shirley or the players.
“It’s like throwing a no-hitter, nobody says anything,” Shirley said. “I don’t know what they talk about amongst themselves, but I never bring it up.”
“We got the goal we wanted, to go to regionals,” Ward said, “so going undefeated doesn’t really matter anymore, but it’d be nice just to go undefeated. It’d be cool.”
Kovacik Insurance opened the scoring in the second inning on Gaston’s RBI single, his first run-scoring hit of the day.
An inning later, I-Medical starter Joey DiPietro walked three batters to load the bases, and Gaston followed with a two-run single to make it 3-0. Kullen Gardner added an RBI single, and the four-run lead proved to be more than enough for Ward.
With a lead in hand, he cruised through the middle innings, retiring eight straight batters in one stretch between the third and fifth innings.
Despite the defensive gaffe that cost him the shutout, Ward was the beneficiary of some solid defense behind him.
The Giants turned a double play in the sixth inning, and they caught the lead runner trying to steal third for the first out of the seventh inning after Ward had walked the first two batters of the inning.
“My curveball wasn’t breaking at all, but I was throwing fastballs and the defense was catching balls, so it was working out real good,” Ward said.
Gaston was the lone Kovacik player with multiple hits. Ward, Rick Shirley, Dakota Sunday, Gardner and John Fetchko added a hit apiece.
The defending league champion, I-Medical finds itself in a hole and needing to win the next two games to retain the title. Coach Joe DiPietro is confident his team can do it.
“We’ve got to battle, but we have the ability,” he said. “We’ve battled from behind in several games this year. Our pitching, our defense has been great. It was good tonight, too. Our pitching and our defense were very good tonight. We struggled at the plate. Our top six guys were (4-for-17) and they’ve been our bread and butter all year. They’ve hit the ball well. We’ve scored a lot of runs out of those top five or six guys. … But tonight, we struggled. Their pitcher did a nice job. He was able to mix it up and hit his spots. … So tomorrow, we’ve got to hit the ball a little better, that’s all.”
Richardson went 2-for-4 with a triple to lead I-Medical. Lucas Ambler, Trent Stouffer and Isaac Stouffer also had a hit each for I-Medical.
As the host of the upcoming Western Regional, I-Medical gets an automatic berth in the tournament regardless of what happens in this series. But that doesn’t mean they are ready to hand the title over to Kovacik.
“We’re not thinking about regionals,” DiPietro said. “We’re thinking about a league championship. Punxs’y has been atop this league for a lot of years, and we want to continue that tradition. We take a lot of pride in our baseball program, Little League up through high school. We’re not thinking about regionals yet. We’ll get to that here in a couple weeks.”