JOHNSTOWN - Midway through the season, the Portage baseball team was searching for answers with a 3-6 record.
The Mustangs regrouped, though, and won seven of their last eight games to salvage their season and earn the No. 5 seed in the District 6 Class A playoffs.
Their lone loss during that final stretch was to Conemaugh Valley and hurler Chris Horten.
Unfortunately, they ran into that same buzz saw Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals.
Horten lost a one-hit shutout in the final inning, but he and the fourth-seeded Blue Jays still managed to beat Portage, 4-1, at Pete Vuckovich Field.
"[Horten] beat us here 6-1 [on May 1]," Portage coach Larry McCabe said. "He looked, once again, like he was in command.
"That kid has command of the strike zone. I watched him throw a 3-1 breaking ball with a runner on and nobody out and he throws it for a strike. Then he strikes the kid out. I give him all the credit in the world."
Horten had seven strikeouts and three walks and had some big defensive plays behind him.
Shortstop Ryan Graham came up big on two occasions, center fielder Patrick Callahan tracked down a long fly ball to right-center and the corners helped complete a heads-up 6-3-5 double play for the first two outs of the game.
Even Horten helped his own cause, picking off Evan Price with a quick move to first for the third out in the third inning.
"I thought the way the game started, we ran ourselves out," McCabe said. "We got picked off, we got thrown out at third - we've got to put pressure on them.
"They made the above-and-beyond routine plays. The shortstop made two nice plays in the hole, made good throws. The outfielder made a heckuva catch on that ball in the gap. They made plays. That's how you win ballgames."
Conemaugh Valley strung three singles together - including a hard-hit ball to left by Anthony Verno - in the bottom of the first to score two runs.
Verno - who, according to Blue Jays coach Bob Beiter, has struggled as of late - reached base all four times he stepped to the plate. He was 3-for-3 with three singles, drew a walk, scored once and had an RBI in the sixth.
"He was in a slump and we just tell him, 'We believe in you' and 'eventually, [the hits are] going to happen,' " Beiter said. "Batting practice, he's phenomenal. Sometimes you get in those slumps and it's a psychological thing.
"Today, he came through big for us. Some very timely hitting. It was nice."
It could have been worse for the Mustangs.
Portage pitcher Jake Bryja was able to get Conemaugh Valley to leave the bases loaded twice, with hitting a batter to plate a run being the only scoring blemish in either instance.
The Blue Jays stranded eight men on base, five of which were in scoring position.
"We kept ourselves in the game by getting out of jams. I'm happy for that," McCabe said. "They had a chance there with the bases loaded a couple of times and we got out of the inning. Other than the hit-by-pitch, [the score] would have been 3-1."
The Mustangs were finally able to get on the scoreboard in the seventh inning.
Bryja reached base and advanced to second on a throwing error to lead off the inning. Devon Harrison beat out a slow dribbler that found a hole between Horten, Graham and third baseman Blake Furman, and Kerch picked up his second hit of the game with an RBI single.
But Horten was able to record three strikeouts in the inning to send the Blue Jays (15-6) to the semifinals just a year after having a dismal 3-16 record.
"Chris has been outstanding for us," Beiter said. "He's a quality pitcher, he's only a junior and he's an effective pitcher. He throws a lot of [different] pitches and pretty much goes out there and does his own game."
After a tough season-opening loss to North Star, Conemaugh Valley bounced back and went 5-1 over its next six games. The Blue Jays ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak.
"We're in the middle of a dream right now," Beiter said. "The kids on a ride and they don't want to get off. It's been a lot of fun. It's been a team effort the whole way here.
"The kids, they jell. They believe in themselves. That's the biggest thing. Once they started to believe in themselves, it just clicked."
Portage, meanwhile, finishes the season 10-8, an ending that didn't seem likely early in the year.
"This year was a great year, I thought," McCabe said. "These kids accomplished a lot as athletes and as players. To get here from where we were - like I said, at one time, we were rock bottom. I'm not going to look down on this game."
PORTAGE (1): Kreutzberger cf-p 200, Price ss 300, J. Bryja p-1b 210, Miller cr-lf 000, Cyran 3b 300, Harrison lf-cf 301, Kerch rf 302, Vocco c 300, M. Bryja 1b 000, Madigan dh 200, Swires ph 100, Baker 2b 100. Totals 23-1-3.
CONEMAUGH VALLEY (4): Barnouski 2b 311, Verno lf 313, Callahan cf 300, Horten p 312, Graham 301, Riehl 1b 000, Markiewicz dh 300, Yanko rf 300, Furman 3b 300, Vibostok c 101, Pringle cr 010. Totals 25-4-8.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Portage000 000 1 - 1 3 1
Conemaugh Valley200 101 X - 4 8 2
E-Price, Callahan, Furman. DP-Conemaugh Valley 1. LOB-Portage 4, Conemaugh Valley 8. RBI-Kerch, Horten, Graham, Callahan, Verno. SAC-Vibostok. SB-Graham, Barnouski. CS-Price, Horten. PO-Price.
Portage-J. Bryja (L), 4 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO; Kreutzberger, 2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 SO.
Conemaugh Valley-Horten (W), 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 7 SO.
HBP-by J. Bryja (Callahan).
Records-Portage (10-8), Conemaugh Valley (15-6).