HERSHEY - As Ben Wyland reached the bag, it became clear first base wasn't completely secure. Later, it turned out second was loose, too.
Brian Donnelly made sure that was never a problem.
District 2 runner-up Council Rock South scored three times in the first inning. That was all the Golden Hawks needed, because Donnelly, a senior right-hander, held Altoona to one hit and two baserunners in bringing an end to the Mountain Lions' longest season, 4-0, in PIAA Class AAAA high school baseball semifinal playoff action at a Hershey Area High School's Memorial Field on a breezy Monday afternoon.
"It was the difference in the ballgame, whether it was first inning jitters or what,'' Altoona coach Tom Smith said after the Lions finished the year 17-6 and advanced beyond the state quarterfinals for the first time. "We just couldn't generate anything offensively.''
Donnelly raised his record to 10-0 as Council Rock South improved to 22-2 and punched its ticket into Friday's state final against Philadelphia's LaSalle College at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in University Park. Christian Helsel's double was the only hit Donnelly surrendered, and Wyland reached on an error but was erased on a double play.
Anthony Lombardo and Wyland pulled a couple of deep flyballs to left field, but those got caught up in the wind and stayed in the park for outs.
"He was hitting the spots. He wasn't overpowering, and he didn't have a crazy curveball or anything. He was just hitting his spots and getting us out,'' said Lombardo, who entered the game batting .333 with 10 doubles and 25 RBIs but wound up 0-for-3 with two flyouts against Donnelly.
Donnelly, a Rider recruit, only struck out four, but he got the first two batters of the game swinging to set the tone and then let the solid defense behind him do the rest.
"I felt pretty good today. Earlier, in the district tournament, I felt I wasn't able to control my fastball. I wasn't able to locate it. One game, I threw one curveball and threw all fastballs the rest of the game,'' Donnelly said. "Today, I was able to locate and spot my offspeed stuff, too. That helped a lot.''
"He just threw strikes,'' Smith said of Donnelly. "He was pretty confident up on the mound, and, when you get a three-run lead or a four-run lead, you're pretty at east. But I think they've been pretty strong pitching-wise all year.''
For the most part, Helsel was Donnelly's equal. Altoona's Ole Miss recruit, coming off back-to-back complete-game pitching wins in the playoffs, only gave up six hits and two walks while striking out seven. He fanned the side in the fourth.
However, three of those Golden Hawk hits were consecutive singles after a walk and a sacrifice started off the bottom of the first inning, resulting in three runs that were more than enough for Donnelly.
Council Rock South also benefited from an errant pickoff throw and a wild pitch in its first at-bat.
"Give them credit. They stepped up there,'' Smith said.
Helsel only allowed six Hawks to reach base after that, and one of those was erased on J.D. Green's great throw to Lombardo to tag out pinch runner Sean Whelan trying to score to end the fifth inning.
Helsel said he didn't feel nervous.
"I made a couple of mistakes, and they capitalized on it,'' Helsel said. "That's all they needed. They did a good job.''
In fact, all three of Council Rock South's first-inning hits came to the opposite field on 1-2 or 0-2 counts. Donnelly's sacrifice bunt was on a 1-2 count, as well.
"[Helsel's] got a good arm. Once we got to two strikes in the count, we just buckle up the chinstraps and battle,'' said Hawk cleanup hitter Jeff Miller, the only player on either team with more than one hit who drove in a third-inning insurance run on a double. "You can't look for a certain pitch with two strikes. You just have to adjust, and we adjusted really well today.''
Council Rock South's entire starting lineup is comprised of seniors, six of whom were starters of the team that made it to the PIAA quarterfinals last season. This class of Golden Hawks has a winning resume, too: They captured the state Little League title and almost went to the Little League World Series and later took home a state American Legion baseball crown.
"We've been in big games. That helps a lot when you are playing in a game like this,'' Donnelly said. "You know how to handle it. Even if you get down early a run or two runs, you have the experience to know that you can get runs. You don't press.''
Altoona's biggest threat came in the fourth, when Helsel lined a lead-off double to right field. However, Donnelly got Green and Lombardo to fly out before retiring Wyland, the Mountain Lions' cleanup batter, on a groundout to second.
"He got our two-three-four guys out with a runner on second. He was pretty solid,'' Smith said. "We knew we were going to have to scratch and claw. Falling behind 3-nothing sort of hurt us. There was still a lot of game left. Defensively, we held them to four runs. We were still in the game.
"We played hard. We put the ball in play. We just couldn't get base hits. They made the plays.''
ALTOONA (0): Helsel p 301, Green lf 300, Lombardo c 300, Wyland 3b 300, Fink 1b 200, Sinisi 2b 200, Oswalt cf 200, Berardinelli ss 200, Stayer rf 200. Totals - 22-0-1.
COUNCIL ROCK SOUTH (4): Fitzgerald 2b 210, Donnelly p 211, DeStefano lf 211, Whelan pr 000, Miller rf 312, Callahan c 301, Gross 1b 300, Coleman 1b 000, Price cf 201, Chaykin 3b 300, Wright ss 300. Totals - 23-4-6.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Altoona000 000 0-0 1 2
Council Rock South301 000 X-4 6 1
E-Helsel, Chaykin, Wyland. DP-Council Rock South. LOB-Altoona 1, Council Rock South 4. 2B-Miller, Helsel, Price. RBI-DeStefano, Callahan, Miller. SAC-Donnelly. SB-Donnelly,Price 2.
Altoona: Helsel (L)-6 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO.
Council Rock South: Donnelly (W)-7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO.
HBP-By Helsel (Price). WP-Helsel.
Umpires: Dan Baker, plate; Shane Petry, first; Robert Snelbaker, second; Rick Anderson, third.
Team records: Altoona (17-6); Council Rock South (22-2).