One is the loneliest number.
Elk County Catholic (16-6) dealt previously undefeated Johnsonburg (20-1) a stunning 5-2 defeat Wednesday afternoon at Sandy Beach Recreational Park, ousting the No. 1 seed from the District 9 Class A baseball playoffs in the process. Throughout the season, one run was often times the difference in a game for the Rams; on Wednesday, just one loss spoiled their season and kept them out of both the district title game and the state playoffs.
"For us, the key was getting runs early, which we did and we worked all week on swinging early in the count, not getting behind," said ECC head varsity baseball coach Tom Zampogna. "Johnsonburg has a very good team with an excellent pitching staff and to get 13 hits, that's awesome.
"The pressure was on them as the undefeated team, they're a very good team but our players hung in there."
The Crusaders scored early but in a consistent manner, pushing runs across the plate in the second, third, fourth, and fifth innings to take a 5-0 lead.
In the top of the second inning, Jack Herzing, starting the day at first base for ECC, poked a Cole Peterson pitch into right field. The ball was mishandled by right fielder Dylan DeLong, allowing the runner to advance to second base. Peterson regrouped with a strikeout to ECC third baseman Ben Cortina for the second out of the inning but his luck ran out on the next at bat.
ECC catcher Vincent Jacob, the No. 8 hitter in the Crusader lineup, started his 3 for 3 day with a run-scoring triple for an early 1-0 advantage.
The run ended Peterson's streak of scoreless innings against ECC. Peterson held the Crusaders scoreless in 10 2-3 consecutive innings of work this season. A strikeout to designated hitter Shea Meyer would end the inning and strand Jacob at third base, one of 11 batters left on base by ECC.
The Crusaders got another run on the board in the top of the third inning. The inning started with a ground-rule double to left field by Pat Brennen, the starting second baseman for ECC. A 1-3 groundout from left fielder Brock McCullough moved the runner to third base before shortstop Dan Singer drew a walk. With one out and runners on the corners, ECC got their second run off Peterson as center fielder Ivan Wortman's single to center field scored Brennen for a 2-0 lead. Seeking to minimize the damage, Peterson got right fielder Joe McLaughlin to go down swinging before Herzing hit a flyout to right field to end the inning.
Hoping to stop bleeding runs while getting the bats moving, the Rams put Quinn Luhr on the hill, moving Peterson to shortstop. The move did not pay off as the Crusaders tagged the relief pitcher for three runs on four hits in two innings of work.
An error by Peterson at shortstop allowed Cortina to reach second base and Jacob followed with a single to center field to put runners at the corners with no outs. Meyer struck out looking in the No. 9 spot as Jacob swiped second base on the play.
A sacrifice fly from Brennen to center field scored Cortina for the Crusaders' third run of the game before McCullough hit a flyout to center field to end the inning.
ECC had their biggest inning in the top of the fifth as they got two runs across for a 5-0 lead.
Singer led off the inning with a grounder to left field. After a Wortman lineout to left field, McLaughlin hit a soft roller in the infield for a single, putting two aboard.
Members of the Johnsonburg coaching staff appealed the call to the home plate umpire, alleging that the ruling should be a "dead ball" since the ball supposedly touched the hitter's foot.
The play was not overturned. Herzing followed with a flyout to center field, deep enough to allow Singer to tag up and move to third. With two outs, Cortina stroked a 2-run single to break open the game, bringing in Singer and McLaughlin for a 5-0 lead. Jacob then worked a base on balls from Luhr before Meyer hit a hard lineout to left field to end the inning.
The Crusaders nearly added more runs in the top of the sixth inning as the Rams brought Mitchell Holmberg to the mound. After Brennen popped up to Luhr in foul territory near third base for the first out of the inning, McCullough, Singer and Wortman racked up consecutive singles to load the bases.
Wortman appeared to have hit a 3-run home run over the left field fence but umpires ruled the long hit a foul ball. Holmberg regrouped, however, to catch McLaughlin and Herzing swinging to strand three more Crusader runners.
Needing to manufacture runs to have a fighting chance, the Rams' best scoring opportunity came in the home half of the sixth inning against ECC starting pitcher Brandon Schlimm.
Johnsonburg catcher Cameron Grumley drew a 1-out walk and Holmberg followed with a single to left field to put two aboard. With only one out, Luhr came through with a single to center field to plate Grumley for the Rams' first run of the game, trimming the lead to 5-1.
After Johnsonburg second baseman Frank Kocjancic became Schlimm's ninth strikeout victim, first baseman Taylor Feronti, 2 for 2 on the day, drew a walk to load the bases. Needing a timely hit to open the floodgates, center fielder Kyle Sheldon hit a sharp grounder to a diving Brennen at second base. Brennen had plenty of time to toss the ball to Herzing at first base for a 4-3 groundout to end the inning.
"I don't think we swung the bat well, I think we looked lazy but [Brandon] Schlimm did an excellent job pitching and he won that game for them," said Johnsonburg head varsity baseball coach Jeff Peterson. "He's a top-notch fireballer, he threw real well. Our strength is usually hitting the fastball but we were riding late on it all day, we just looked lazy.
"In the last few innings we started hitting it and making some noise but it was too late. We've played with fire at times all year and we finally got burned a little bit at the end."
Holmberg walked Cortina and gave up a Jacob single to center field before being lifted with no outs in the top of the seventh inning. With Peterson back on the hill, the sophomore standout struck out the side (Meyer, Brennen, McCullough) to set the stage for a possible Johnsonburg comeback in the home half of the seventh inning.
Instead, the Rams found themselves in unfamiliar territory: a "1" in the loss column and no tomorrow.
"You have to give the kids a lot of credit for winning 20 games, having an 18-0 regular season," coach Peterson said. "We had one bad game and I've said all year that this was the one you had to have rather than the 20 wins. It's a hard one to swallow but we're going to bounce back as we'll pretty much have the same team next year with a couple of kids moving up. [ECC] deserved it, they're the better team today, and only today.
"I won't go any further than that, just today. They were a better team today and they earned it, and I wish them luck. We had a great season at 20-1, that's pretty good, but it'll be hard to swallow. We didn't throw well [Wednesday], we looked sluggish all around but what are you going to do, they beat us."
A leadoff walk to designated hitter Devon Zilcoski prompted coach Zampogna to pull Schlimm in favor of Herzing. Schlimm gave up only one run on six hits in six innings of work while striking out nine Johnsonburg batters and walking only three.
"Brandon Schlimm pitched very well [Wednesday] and [Johnsonburg] hadn't seen Brandon [Schlimm], so for us, that was a good thing," coach Zampogna said. "He relies a lot more on fastballs and off-speed pitches, and he did a good job."
DeLong followed by hitting into a double play opportunity but the throw to first base was well off the mark, allowing DeLong to advance to second base with one out.
Peterson followed with an infield single to shortstop and a 1-3 groundout from Grumley scored DeLong to cut the lead to 5-2. Looking for the final out of the game, Herzing got a 5-3 groundout from Holmberg to put ECC in today's title game at 6 p.m. at Berwind Park against Coudersport (14-4).
"Baseball is a funny game but right now, everything is clicking and the cylinders are starting to hit," coach Zampogna said. "As long as we can continue to hit, we'll be good. Jack [Herzing] will be coming back to pitch [today] and the bats are starting to work. We're working well and everything is clicking.
"We extend our congratulations to Johnsonburg as well. They were undefeated coming into this game and that's a lot of pressure to go undefeated like that, and they're a classy team and a very good team."