HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Blairsville stages big rally to reach title game
BLAIRSVILLE — Even though the pressure felt nearly unbearable, determined Blairsville junior John Distefano shook it off and focused.
Distefano desperately wanted to help the Bobcats’ seniors complete an unthinkable comeback in their District 6 Class AA semifinal-round playoff baseball game against Central.
With his adrenaline pumping like a piston, Distefano homed in on a fastball and drilled it into the right-field corner, driving in two runners to tie the game.
Two batters later, Distefano fittingly scored the game-winning run on a balk, capping a brilliant last-inning comeback in which six runs scored with two outs in an unforgettable 7-6 win at Wyotech Park on Saturday.
Blairsville (16-1) advanced to the District 6 championship game for the first time in school history. The top-seeded Bobcats will face seventh-seeded Mount Union on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona.
Blairsville also punched its first ticket to the PIAA championships. The first round of the state playoffs begins June 3.
The loss snapped a 15-game winning streak for fourth-seeded Central (15-5), which dropped its first four games of the season.
“I was just thinking don’t end it. Don’t end it for us. Those guys deserve to play at Altoona, and that’s what I wanted to do for them,” Distefano said. “It’s just all adrenaline. It’s a good feeling, especially when it ends up turning out your way.”
“Did I ever dream that was going to happen? Absolutely not,” longtime Blairsville coach Mark Zerfoss added. “I was just trying to convince them that I wasn’t quitting and that I didn’t want them to quit. But, you know, down five runs in the last inning, you don’t want to throw the towel in, but there’s a little bit of doubt. These guys just stepped up and did it, and it was remarkable.”
The Bobcats got handcuffed by Central ace Ethan Lewis in the first six innings and trailed 6-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh.
Lucas Palmer followed a leadoff strikeout from Nick Scribe and ignited the Bobcats’ extraordinary rally by legging out an infield single.
Three batters later and with two outs, Bobby Thompson launched a two-run single into the left-center field gap to score Palmer and Anthony Faulk, trimming Central’s lead to 6-3.
Thompson then made it a 6-4 game when he scored two batters later on a base hit to right field from Cameron Livingston.
Then, with Livingston on second and Scott Thompson on third, Distefano drilled a Lewis fastball into the right-field corner, scoring Livingston and Thompson to tie game, 6-6.
“I don’t think anyone actually expected the kids to bounce back with that enthusiasm and that desire to get on,” Zerfoss said. “But then Bobby (Thompson) got a hit, and then we got another hit. And then it’s like, my gosh. You could just hear the fans erupting and you could hear the bench erupting, and that boost and that energy that we got from the fans and the dugout was just phenomenal, and I think that helped us focus at the plate and score those runs.”
After Lewis walked the next batter, Colton McMillan, Central manager A.J. Hoenstine called on hard-throwing reliever Kasy Hamm to get the Dragons out of the jam.
Hamm, however, never got to throw a pitch.
With Scribe batting, Hamm stepped on the rubber from the stretch and looked home. Just as Hamm began the initial motion of his windup, McMillan took off for second.
When Hamm noticed a runner motoring toward second, the senior right-hander stopped his motion, turned toward first, and then attempted to pick McMillan off.
The game’s umpires immediately determined the maneuver a balk, an infraction that allowed Distefano to score and end the game.
“I felt the momentum and I thought we would do it. It just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t,” Distefano said.
“He balked. That happens,” Hoenstine added of Hamm, who was 5-for-5 in save opportunities coming into the game. “I’ve put him out on the mound a million other times and Kasy Hamm is a great senior leader for us. It just happened. Our bench was yelling to step off, but it was a pressure situation, and that happens.”
An RBI double from Austin Cunningham and an RBI single from Jay Stern put Central on the board first with a 2-0 lead in the top of the third.
The Dragons then used two hits, three errors and a walk in the fourth to plate four more runs. Cunningham stretched Central’s lead to 6-0 by scoring on a Blairsville error.
Distefano cut Central’s lead to 6-1 the following inning when he smacked a sacrifice fly that plated Bobby Thompson.
Bobby Thompson allowed just two hits and no runs after the Dragons’ four-run fourth inning. Thompson, who went 2-for-4 with two runs scored, struck out two, walked one and allowed eight hits in a complete-game win.
“It’s my job out there pitching to try to get them to hit ground balls to John (Distefano) and Reed (Ratkus) and strike kids out and make them hit popups, and that’s what they did,” Thompson said. “This means everything. (We won) the Heritage title and to win our first game and never look back, it’s something special. I’m glad to share it with all the guys that did it.”
Scott Thompson went 3-for-3, Livingston finished 3-for-4, and Distefano went 2-for-3.