Juniata Valley misses chances
CRESSON — Juniata Valley’s 2-1 loss in the first round of the PIAA Class 1A playoffs Monday surprised a lot of people across the state, including several Greensburg Central Catholic parents who were happily stunned their team knocked off the Green Hornets at Mount Aloysius College.
Two years ago, Juniata Valley made it all the way to the 1A semifinals and entered this year’s state tournament as the three-time defending District 6 champions with a lineup filled with seniors.
A single swing of the bat and some base-running errors ended the high school careers of those seniors but not before the Green Hornets left a lasting impression as a 1A baseball powerhouse.
“My freshman year, when this group of guys came around, we started the motto ‘why not us,'” Juniata Valley senior shortstop Bryce Hensor said. “We’re a small school, and no one had ever heard of us when we got so far in the playoffs. At Juniata Valley it was always, ‘let’s make the playoffs or finish .500,’ and we changed the lifestyle for Juniata Valley baseball.”
Hensor took the loss hard, holding his batting helmet and staring downward in the dugout following the final out.
“It’s not really about the wins and losses or the championships,” said Hensor as his voice cracked and his eyes began to water. “It’s about the memories and friendships that we have. This whole run was just unforgettable. I’m extremely blessed to get to play alongside every one of these players. Throughout the last four years, I’ve made my best friends here. It’s been unbelievable, and I’m just so blessed to have been a part of it.”
It was Hensor who gave Juniata Valley the lead in the bottom of the first inning on a sacrifice fly that scored Seth Derugen.
Green Hornets starter Jack Johnson worked out of trouble in the top of the inning, getting James Rice on a groundout with runners on second and third following Jack Liberatore’s double. Johnson had a quick second inning, but the third proved to be the difference in the game.
Nick Ruggeri worked a one-out walk, and Johnson tried several times to pick the Greensburg leadoff man off first base. When he finally threw his second pitch to Neal McDermott, it didn’t take long for it to leave the field of play. The left-hander crushed the ball just inside the foul pole as right fielder Kris Harker looked on helplessly.
“I didn’t know if it was going to stay fair or foul,” McDermott said. “It was one of the hardest balls I’ve ever hit, and it felt great.”
McDermott made the home run stand up, allowing just three hits over his seven innings. Juniata Valley’s lone run was unearned.
“Their pitcher knew how to throw, and he threw the ball hard,” Bryce Hensor said. “He had a good out pitch, and he got guys out and let his defense play. Hat’s off to him. He threw a great game.”
Greensburg Central Catholic entered the game with a chip on its shoulder after being upset in the WPIAL championship game by a Jeannette team it defeated twice in the regular season.
“Coming back from the loss in the WPIAL championship game, it was important to win this one,” McDermott said. “This is a special group of guys. We believed in ourselves, because we knew we could beat anybody.”
The Green Hornets had an excellent chance to at least tie the game in the bottom of the fifth inning. Blake Morrison led off with a walk and went to second on Harker’s sacrifice bunt. Seth Derugen followed with a single, but pinch runner Kyle Derugen couldn’t break when the ball was hit as it was just over Rice’s head at second base.
With runners on the corners and one out, Jacob Hensor stepped to the plate with Valley’s best hitter — Bryce Hensor — on deck.
What happened next left plenty of fans wearing green shaking their heads.
McDermott picked Seth Derugen off first as the junior broke toward second. A throw to second forced him into a rundown, and Kyle Derugen broke for home. Greensburg noticed it immediately, threw to third and tagged out Kyle as Seth advanced to second. In the aftermath of the play, no one covered third base, and Seth tried to advance again. Despite a leaping attempt, Centurions third baseman Ethan Bailey tagged out Seth for the final out of the inning.
“We have been aggressive on the bases all year,” Juniata Valley coach Don Price said. “We had that double steal that really took us out of an inning by being aggressive. It worked all year, and it ended up costing us.
“We had a straight steal on, and then decided to get Seth into a rundown to try and get a run in. We did that twice this year, and it has worked. Their pitcher made a good throw to pick him off, and they followed it up with some more good throws.”
It was something Greensburg had prepared for coming into the game.
“I heard someone say step off,” McDermott said. “We just worked on rundowns in practice yesterday. Our second baseman made a great throw, and our third baseman picked it and got the tag out. I don’t know what the other kid was doing, but we stayed with the play and got out of it. We didn’t overreact, and our defense came through huge.”
Bryce Hensor, Jake Houck, River Stewart, Morrison and Harker will all graduate out of the starting lineup.
“What they have accomplished with all the championships is so amazing,” Price said. “They have done so much for the baseball program and Juniata Valley and put their hearts and souls into it. I feel so bad for them to have to lose this way.”
Despite losing a total of eight seniors, Juniata Valley will be in a position to compete for another district title next season thanks to the tradition its seniors helped build.
Johnson, Quinn Zinobile and Seth Derugen, who combined to hold Greensburg to just three hits, will all be back.
“We’re losing a bunch of seniors,” Price said. “But we have some quality players coming back, including all of our pitching. We’ll regroup and try to make another run next year.”
GREENSBURG CENTRAL CATHOLIC (2): Ruggeri ss 310, McDermott p 311, Hoover 1b 301, P. Rice c 000, Liberatore dh 201, J. Rice 2b 200, Bailey 3b 300, Cavallo lf 200, Kurpiel rf 200, Voellker ph 100, LoNigro cf 200, Salley ph 100. Totals — 24-2-3.
JUNIATA VALLEY (1): S. Derugen cf-p 311, J. Hensor 2b 201, B. Hensor ss 100, Houck c 301, Walters cr 000, Zinobile 3b-p-3b 300, Stewart 1b 300, Johnson p-3b 200, D. Richner rf 100, Morrison lf 100, K. Derugen pr 000, N. Richner ph 100, Harker rf-cf 000. Totals — 20-1-3.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Greensburg C.C. 002 000 0–2 3 1
Juniata Valley 100 000 0–1 3 0
E–J. Rice. 2B–Liberatore. HR–McDermott. RBI–McDermott 2, B. Hensor. WP–McDermott. LP–Johnson.
GREENSBURG CENTRAL CATHOLIC: McDermott–7IP, 3H, 1R, 0ER, 7K, 3BB, 93 pitches.
JUNIATA VALLEY: Johnson–4IP, 3H, 2R, 2ER, 2K, 1BB, 66 pitches; Zinobile–2IP, 0H, 0R, 0ER, 2K, 2BB, 34 pitches; S. Derugen–1IP, 0H, 0R, 0ER, 2K, 1BB, 12 pitches.
Records: Greensburg Central Catholic (13-5); Juniata Valley (19-3).