The safety net has been removed — it’s either win or go home.
The Biglerville and Gettysburg baseball squads played in their respective District 3 championship games last week knowing that regardless of the outcome, their seasons would continue in the PIAA playoffs. When the Canners and Warriors take the field today, it could be for the last time.
The single-elimination state tournament kicks off for the Times Area squads in Cresson and Pine Grove; Biglerville tangles with Mount Union at 1 p.m. at Mt. Aloysius College in a Class 3A tilt while Gettysburg faces Blue Mountain at Walter Stump Stadium in a 5A clash at 4:30.
Warrior head coach Ryan Brady recognizes the obstacles his team faces when lining up opposite District 11 champ Blue Mountain (21-3), which sports three players committed to playing on the NCAA Division I level. Ace Nathan Nabholz will pitch for East Carolina University next season while shortstop/pitcher Drew Grace is bound for the University of Kentucky. Junior third baseman Billy Gerlott has verbally committed to Penn State.
While the Eagles present a daunting challenge, Brady has an ace up his sleeve in senior Josh Topper. The righty heads into today’s game with a spotless 7-0 record and a miniscule earned run average of 0.37. Topper, who displays nerves of steel on the mound, has struck out 55 batters this season while issuing only seven free passes in 57 innings of work.
Brady believes Topper is perfectly suited for today’s challenge.
“With Josh, you can’t tell if we’re
winning 5-0 or losing 5-0,” he said. “He gets back on the mound and throws the next pitch. He has the perfect demeanor to be a pitcher. He never gets rattled.”
Brady saw all he needed from his righty four years ago when he made his first varsity start in the regular season finale at James Buchanan. The Warriors were running low on arms and Brady texted then-assistant Robert Rohrbaugh, asking for his advice.
“Robert said Topper has the freshest arm, he’ll give you a couple of innings and let’s see what happens,” recalled Brady.
Topper responded by throwing a complete-game shutout to kick off what has been a dazzling scholastic career.
“I almost felt like we were throwing him to the wolves,” said Brady, laughing. “You would’ve thought he was a senior. Nothing fazes him.”
Brady said they’ve done as much homework as possible on the Eagles, but don’t know today’s opponent inside and out. That doesn’t really bother the Gettysburg skipper.
“For them to be a No. 1 seed and have the record they have, clearly they’re a very good team,” he said. “We’ve been able to talk to enough people that we have an idea of what we’re running into.”
Gettysburg (21-4) is coming off a narrow loss to Cedar Cliff in the district finals. The Warriors were unable to protect a late lead after a few miscues were magnified by the opportunistic Colts. Brady doesn’t believe there will be a hangover effect today.
“You’re always a little worried about losing an emotional game like we did but I’ve been pleased with their concentration in practice,” he said.
Brady said the Warriors were looking to clean up the unseen errors that took place against Cedar Cliff, such as missing signs and taking extra bases. He knows that teams at this level will pounce on those mistakes.
“We’re expecting a low-scoring game where it will be something simple like getting a bunt down and scratching out a couple of runs,” he said. “We need to play good defense, make routine plays, things like that. You want to keep it close because you never know what can happen. We fully expect to win, that’s our mentality.”
The Canners (16-7) will share that belief when they load up the bus this morning and head off to face a big-hitting Mount Union team. The Trojans (21-3) are batting .380 as a unit, with five players accounting for 151 of their 261 total hits this season. Seniors Quinnten Fultz (.394), Seth Smith (.385), Matt Harshbarger (.345), Dylan Gearhart (.461) and junior Ethan Carbaugh (.458) have also collected nearly half of the team’s 186 RBI. Gearhart is the main thumper with 36 RBI and 10 extra-base knocks.
“They can hit and they have a team ERA of 1.20, so they have pitching,” said Canner head coach Jeff Taylor. “But we have some pitching and we can hit, too. We’ll have to play well but I think we’re ready and I think we can beat this team.”
Biglerville appeared to get caught up in the bright lights of PeoplesBank Park last Tuesday against Oley Valley in the D3 finals. The defense misfired on a handful of Lynx bunts leading to an early deficit. From there, Canner hitters were coming out of their spikes at just about every offering they saw at the dish.
“Once you get behind you press and try to get them back all at one time,” Taylor said of his eager hitters. “You need to stay disciplined at the plate.”
As for the infield errors, he believes some extra practice cured those ills.
“We worked on that for an hour on Saturday,” said Taylor. “We went over it and over it and over it. I hope we’re in good shape.”
Taylor will give the ball to senior ace Ben Bretzman, who will be tasked with keeping the heart of the Trojan lineup off balance. Bretzman (7-5, 2.65 ERA) is likely to be opposed by Gearhart (8-2, 0.46 ERA) or Smith (8-0, 1.61 ERA), who will face a Canner lineup hitting a collective .332.
As for final words of motivation before today’s contest begins, Taylor said he plans to relay a message he received from one of his former Shippensburg University teammates who has umpired three of the Canners’ games this season.
“He told me that we have a darn good team, just go out and have fun and leave everything on the field,” said Taylor.