Dragons one win away: Central advances to state title game

UNIVERSITY PARK — Never a flame-thrower, Jarrett Imler was doing his best impersonation of one of those jugglers who work with lit torches in Monday’s PIAA Class 3A baseball semifinal game.

He kept playing with fire. But he never got burned.

Imler and Central’s pitching stayed red hot, though, as the Scarlet Dragons narrowly missed their third straight shutout win in state tournament play, 3-1, against Huntingdon on a warm and scenic evening at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park despite the Bearcats leaving 16 runners on base.

For the Dragons, now 22-3, the victory avenged a 2-0 loss to the Bearcats in the District 6 championship game. It also meant Central would be right back at Penn State’s baseball field on Thursday, when it is to face Holy Redeemer, a 4-0 winner over Loyalsock, for the PIAA title.

“They got some key hits (in the district championship). We got some today,” Central coach A.J. Hoenstine said of reversing the loss to the Bearcats two weeks ago at Peoples Natural Gas Field. “There was extra motivation, because we’re rivals in every sport.”

There was extra motivation, too, for Imler, who pitched a complete-game two-hitter in the D6 final loss to Huntingdon and Bearcats ace righty, Jared Showalter.

“As soon as we lost that game, I knew we could see Huntingdon again, and I wanted Showalter again. He’s the best pitcher I ever faced” Imler said. “That really pumped us up. We came with fire today, and we were out for blood today.”

Imler went the first six innings, giving up six hits but hitting three batters, too, to get the win. Brady Nicewonger got the first two outs in the seventh before giving way to Alex Hoenstine to get the last out and the save after Huntingdon scored its only run on a seventh-inning flyball error.

“Jarrett Imler — what a kid, what a competitor. I hope some of our younger kids were watching that,” A.J. Hoenstine said. “Jarrett wanted more than anything to throw in the state championship game, but I told him there’s going to be no state championship game unless we get a ‘W’ today. He said, ‘Give me the ball, then.'”

It was far for easy for Imler, though. Huntingdon had the bases filled in both the first, sixth and seventh innings. In the sixth, the Bearcats loaded them with one out, but Dragon third baseman Josh McKnight reached to his right to snare Showalter’s liner. Then Imler got Seth Baney to ground out to shortstop Alex Hoenstine to end the threat before giving way to the Central bullpen.

“We use the term ‘bulldog.’ I just trust my defense,” Imler said. “The main problem I had is it is unbelievably hot, and I’m sweating. My hand was sweaty, and I couldn’t grip the ball like I normally would.”

Imler and the Dragons then had to sweat out the bottom of the seventh, when the Bearcats loaded the bases again. Nicewonger appeared to have it ended when Nick Zanic hit a fly to shallow left, but the ball went through Hunter Liebal’s glove, and Landon Fisher scored the first run the Dragons have given up in the PIAA playoffs.

Liebal, though, got to redeem himself two batters later when Huntingdon’s top hitter, Nick Holesa, hit another one his way. This time Liebal secured it, and Central was on its way to its fourth state title appearance and first since 2014.

“It means everything for us to get back in the state championship game,” Liebal said. “I was nervous (on the second flyball). I was ready for it to be over and get back in the state championship.”

Showalter was the hard-luck loser for Huntingdon. He went 5 2/3 innings, striking out seven.

The Bearcats, who were the seventh seed entering the D6 playoffs and lost two games to Central by a combined 18 runs in the regular season, finished the year 15-8 and have most of their team coming back for 2018.

“We fought back like we always do,” Bearcats coach George Zanic said. “The breaks just didn’t go our way today. We had a lot of hard-hit balls. We left a ton or runners on base. You can’t win ballgames like that.”

Central, which got two hits from McKnight, managed single tallies in the first, third and sixth. The first-inning run came without the benefit of a hit, as Alex Hoenstine walked and scored when third baseman Nick Gearhart’s throw went into right field, where Seth Baney had trouble coming up with it, too.

“That’s huge to get that first run. They did that to us in the district championship,” A.J. Hoenstine said. “We were able to steal and hit and run. You’re able to do some things like that when you have the lead.”

Central pitchers, meanwhile, have gone 19 innings in the PIAA bracket without allowing an earned run, and the Dragons only have allowed one run at all over that span.

“Our defense is second to none, and I think younger players can watch is our pitchers, when they have the radar gun there and guys try to light it up, these guys don’t do that,” A.J. Hoenstine said. “They throw strikes and hit spots.”

The next spot they’ll hit is right back at Medlar Field on Thursday.

“It is unbelievably awesome,” Imler said. “We have a chance to make Central history and win the first-ever state championship.”

CENTRAL (3): Hoenstine ss-p 310, Smith cf 311, McKnight 3b 302, Speck rf 400, J. Muthler c 301, Karstetter cr 010, Liebal lf 301, Corle 2b 301, Imler p 201, N. Muthler cr-ss 000, B. Nicewonger p 000, Brumbaugh 1b 300. Totals — 27-3-7.

HUNTINGDON (1): Zanic cf 401, Holesa ss 401, Showalter p-lf-rf 301, Baney rf-lf 401, Mykut c-p 300, Wagner cr 000, Fisher dh 311, Safko pr 000, Huntsman 2b 000, Weglarz lf 400, Briggs 1b 302, R. Ritchey pr 000, Gearhart 3b 100, Conner ph 000, J. Ritchey ph 100. Totals — 30-1-7.

SCORE BY INNINGS

Central 101 001 0–3 7 2

Huntingdon 000 000 1–1 7 3

E–Gearhart, Baney, McKnight, Mykut, Liebal. LOB–Central 7, Huntingdon 16. DP–Huntingdon. 2B–Corle. RBI–McKnight, Imler. SF–. SAC–. SB–Smith 2, Showalter, Zanic, McKnight. CS–McKnight.

PITCHING

Central: Imler (W)–6 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO; B. Nicewonger–.2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO; Hoenstine–.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO.

Huntingdon: Showalter (L)–5.2 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 SO; Mykut–1.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO.

HBP–By Imler (Mykut, Fisher, Holesa), by Showalter (Imler).

Records: Central (23-3); Huntingdon (15-8).

Umpires: Jeff Holter, home; Tom Burger, first; Mike Kresovich, second; Dave Urbanik, third.

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