Dragons erase 2021 semifinal memory, move on to state finals
HOMER CITY — Central spent an entire year working to get back to the position it was in Monday night in the PIAA Class 3A high school baseball semifinals at First Commonwealth Bank Field.
The Scarlet Dragons were driven to right what went wrong last season when they were upset by eventual state champion Tyrone in the same round, but coming to bat in the bottom of the fifth inning, they found themselves down by two runs to District 9 champion Punxsutawney.
A lot of teams, almost every team in fact, would tighten up with only nine outs to play facing the end of their season.
Not this senior-led Central team.
“I didn’t see any difference, any change,” Central coach A.J. Hoenstine said. “I saw the captains get the guys together and tell them we had it.”
The Scarlet Dragons did what they do. Parker Gregg and Paxton Kling were hit by pitches, and with two outs, Radford commit Devon Boyles launched a first-pitch, three-run home run to give Central a lead it never relinquished in a 6-5 victory.
“It looked like a meatball,” Boyles said. “Coach said before that at bat to get my money’s worth out of these hacks, so I got my money’s worth out of it.”
The home run took Central starting pitcher Ty Helsel off the hook for a potential loss and made him the winning pitcher.
“I was going crazy,” Helsel said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. I was the first person to meet him at home plate, and I gave him a big ole hug.”
Helsel helped Central add to the lead by following Boyles’ home run with an RBI single that ended up scoring two runs when a throwing error allowed Griff Snowberger to come home and make it 6-3.
Boyles relieved Helsel and admitted he was still feeling the adrenaline of the home run. He struggled with his control, and Punxsutawney took advantage by scoring a pair of runs on wild pitches. With the tying run at third, Boyles retired Josh Tyger on a long fly ball.
“It stings,” Punxsutawney coach Mike Dickey said. “We didn’t come here to lose. We didn’t come here to coronate them as state champions. This is a group that just battles. I know Central is loaded, but we have a lot of heart, fight and grit. I think you saw that today. We gave them everything they wanted and more.”
The Scarlet Dragons will play District 3 champion Lancaster Catholic, a 3-0 winner over Neumann-Goretti in the other semifinal, on Friday in the PIAA championship at University Park’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park with first pitch scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
“I’m really happy for our kids and our community,” Hoenstine said. “We’ll have great community support. We face a tough task with Lancaster Catholic, and we’ll have to be ready to play.”
Kling helped Central take an early lead for the third state playoff game in a row when he led off with a double and scored on a Boyles groundout.
Punxsutawney tied it without a hit in the third inning and took a 3-1 lead in the fifth as Helsel struggled with his control. It was just Helsel’s fourth start of the season as he’s usually used in relief, but normal starter Jonah Snowberger did not take the mound after suffering an elbow injury in Central’s first-round win over Mohawk. He did play as the designated hitter and singled in the second inning.
“I normally don’t walk too many guys, but today I just didn’t have my command,” Helsel said. “I was a little nervous starting in that big of a game.”
Through four innings, Punxsutawney starting pitcher Jake Sikora had only allowed one run on three hits, but he tried to get ahead in the count against Boyles after hitting Gregg and Kling.
“A couple pitches got away from him, and he hung a changeup,” Dickey said. “One pitch, man. One pitch. They scored 335 runs this year, and we held them to six, though. We did our job.”
Hoenstine slapped Boyles’ hand as the senior rounded third base.
“He hit the ball hard the last time up, so I wanted him to get his money’s worth,” Hoenstine said. “We obviously needed that, and that was big. Everyone was asking what we would do in a pressure situation, because we haven’t been in many this year, but these guys are battle tested whether it be baseball or football. We need to play better, but I’m glad the way they responded.”
Kling pumped his fist when the ball cleared the fence.
“I was sprinting to second and saw it go over the fence, and I was pretty excited,” Kling said. “I don’t think their dugout was too excited, but it was a big spot, and we all got excited.”
Boyles had calmed down by the seventh inning and retired the side in order, including a pair of strikeouts.
“This feels real good,” Boyles said. “I told everyone before the game that we all knew what it felt like to lose last year and to not repeat it this year.”
PUNXSUTAWNEY (5): London 3b-p 110, Hetrick 2b 210, Sikora p-3b 302, Wood cr 010, Gula pr 010, Savage 1b 200, Henretta pr 000, Martino ss 000, Tyger dh 411, Stonbraker c 401, Phillips cr 000, Dinger rf 401, Miller lf 400, Bennett cf 200. Totals–26-5-5.
CENTRAL (6): Kling cf 321, Hoenstine ss 100, Boyles 1b-p 411, Smith c 210, G. Snowberger 3b 210, Helsel p-1b 302, Fisher cr 000, Biesinger rf 000, J. Snowberger dh 301, Gregg lf 211, Metzger 2b 300. Totals–23-6-6.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Punxsutawney 001 022 0 – 5 5 1
Central 100 050 X – 6 6 1
E–Stonbraker, Hoenstine. 2B–Dinger, Stonbraker, Kling. HR–Boyles. RBI–Savage, Tyger, Stonbraker, Boyles 4, Helsel.
Punxsutawney: Sikora (L)–4 2/3IP, 4H, 4K, 1BB, 3HBP, 5R, 5ER, 70 pitches. London–1 1/3IP, 2H, 1K, 1BB, 1HBP, 1R, 0ER, 34 pitches.
Central: Helsel (W)–5IP, 4H, 5K, 5BB, 1HBP, 3R, 3ER, 99 pitches. Boyles (S)–2IP, 1H, 3K, 2BB, 2R, 2ER, 48 pitches.
Umpires: Ted Oppegard (plate); Craig Knupp (1B); Ross Shinew (2B); John Nakich (3B).
Records: Punxsutawney (16-6); Central (26-0).