By Matt Popchock
Although its shutout streak was halted, the baseball season was extended for Blackhawk (22-2) with an eventual 6-1 rout of Thomas Jefferson (17-6) in the PIAA Class AAA Quarterfinals at North Allegheny High School.
Blackhawk previously recorded a 1-0 win over TJ there in the WPIAL Semifinals, and used a five-run seventh inning to decide Thursday’s encore.
Sophomore sensation Brendan McKay allowed an earned run for the first time in almost 36 innings of work, but he only allowed five hits and one walk while striking out 12 Jaguars to raise his record to 10-1. Blackhawk, as a team, had not been scored upon since an 8-2 win over Moon in sectional play May 3.
“I just tried to locate my pitches as well as I did last time, and keep my curve ball down in the zone where they’d miss it,” McKay said.
In Monday’s semifinal round the Cougars will oppose West York, the third-place team from District 3, which put the kibosh on another possible grudge match by beating Belle Vernon 6-2 at Mansion Park in Altoona.
McKay was hard at work writing the script for a “Groundhog Day” sequel. Everything about this pitchers’ duel resembled that first playoff meeting, except for the fact that the teams stood in opposite dugouts, and that this one did not appear destined for extra frames, despite the continued dominance of both starters. With Blackhawk ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth his counterpart, Greg Schneider, demanded a rewrite by blasting a two-out, two-strike triple that tied the game.
Schneider, a Pitt recruit, ended his senior year at 11-2 after being pulled with one out in the seventh. He allowed five runs on six hits while striking out 11, walking three, and hitting one batter, though three of the runs charged to him scored via runners inherited by Joe Shaffer.
“We waited more…and tried to lay off his slider a little more than we did last time,” McKay said of his team’s sudden outburst against Schneider. “It’s tempting to swing at it when you haven’t seen many fastballs from him, so you want to take your swings…but you just have to be patient and wait for that pitch that you can drive.”
Once McKay bailed himself out by getting cleanup man Bruno Natter to ground out to second, the Cougars turned “Groundhog Day” into what must have felt like a “Twilight Zone” reboot to Schneider. Designated hitter Brandon Mansell carbon-copied that triple after the first out of the seventh, then third baseman Brendan Kearney snapped out of his recent slump with a game-winning RBI single that barely eluded the glove of Shaffer, who was playing first base at the time.
“He just doesn’t let anything bother him,” said catcher and Ohio State recruit Matt Emge in reference to his battery mate. “He’s got great stuff, obviously, and he throws it for strikes, but being able to stay calm is probably his best attribute, and not a lot of sophomores have that.”
Blackhawk, which sent ten men to the plate that inning, got four straight to reach base against Schneider, followed by three in a row against Shaffer. Emge and shortstop Tyler Craig each ended 2-for-4 and had an RBI off the Thomas Jefferson reliever.
The Cougars had managed only ten runs during their five-game shutout streak.
“We knew one run wasn’t necessarily going to do it this time,” Emge said. “Once [Schneider] got that big hit, we knew we had to bear down and do what we were capable of.
“Everybody’s a leader on this team. Everybody’s been picking each other up, especially in the playoffs, and this senior class wants to keep it up and do something special.”
Unfortunately, just as Thursday marked a disappointing end to the season for the Jaguars, several other WPIAL baseball teams went home unhappy. Host Bishop McCort out-slugged WPIAL semifinalist Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 9-8, in Class A action at Somerset High School, and Altoona doubled up Quad-A runner-up Mount Lebanon, 6-3, in the finale of that doubleheader yesterday afternoon to end the Blue Devils’ Cinderella run. In addition, Elk County Catholic edged two-time WPIAL Class A champion Neshannock in a 4-3 contest at the White Township Complex in Indiana, PA.
On a positive note, WPIAL runner-up and defending PIAA Class AA champ Riverside kept its state title defense alive. The Panthers echoed an earlier playoff win over South Fayette at N.A. by taming the Lions, 5-4, at that same venue.
Riverside will take on surprising North Star, which could become the first-ever District 5 team to play for a state championship, in a PIAA Semifinal game Monday.
Meanwhile, Thursday was a little bit more productive day for the WPIAL in the PIAA Softball Quarterfinals. Montour defeated Greensburg-Salem 4-1 at N.A., while the young ladies from Neshannock and Chartiers-Houston advanced with identical 4-3 wins over Fairview and Saegertown, respectively.
Deer Lakes (vs. Martinsburg Central) and Canon-McMillan (vs. Central Mountain) will make up their rained-out games this afternoon at 12 and 2 P.M., respectively.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)