INDIANA – The Neshannock Lancers may have had more fans in the stands and around the field at Thursday afternoon's quarterfinal contest at the White Township Recreation Complex in Indiana, but the Elk County Catholic Crusader squad made enough noise both on and off the field to keep the momentum in their favor as they pulled off a 4-3 victory to advance to the PIAA Class A baseball championship semifinals.
Jack Herzing went the distance on the mound for the Crusaders, giving up three hits, walking two, and striking out seven.
"I thought that was probably the best he pitched this year," said ECC coach Tom Zampogna. "He really pitched a good game tonight. He didn't get rattled. I mean, there a lot of points in the game where they (Neshannock) had some runners on base and the pressure was on him and he kept himself calm and pitched through it."
Alex Welker started on the mound for Neshannock, working three and one-third innings and giving up five hits, walking seven, and striking out three.
"Their pitcher was really struggling there, even early in the game. I don't know if he was tired or not, but he was throwing more balls than he was strikes so we were just very selective at the plate and it worked out in our favor. The downside was we left a lot of guys on base," Zampogna said.
Michael Ross took over on the mound for the final two and two-thirds, giving up one hit and striking out three.
All six of Elk Catholic's hits were singles. Those who singled for the Crusaders were Pat Brennen, Brock McCullough, Dan Singer, Jack Herzing, Ben Cortina, and Shea Meyer.
"Neshannock had some good hitters at the top of their order and we managed to work through them," Zampogna said.
The Lancers were limited to just three hits, a double by Alex Welker and singles by Matthew Cioffi and John Conglose.
In the top of the first, Alex Strittmatter led off for the Lancers by reaching base on an error. Matthew Cioffi stuck out for the first out of the inning, and John Sansone flied out to center. With Ryan Giangiuli up to bat, Strittmatter tried to steal second but was unable to beat the throw, keeping Neshannock from taking any sort of advantage. In the home half of the inning Pat Brennen led off with a walk and advanced on a single by Brock McCullough. A single by Dan Singer scored Brennen, giving ECC a 1-0 lead. The team was unable to keep the momentum going, though, as Ivan Wortman flied out to right field and then Jack Herzing hit into a double play to end the inning.
Neshannock tied things up in the top of the second. Ryan Gianguili hit a line drive to third baseman Ben Cortina for the Lancers' first out. John Conglose reached base after being hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a passed ball. Anthony Van Eman flied out to the shortstop for the Lancers' second out. Alex Welker doubled to left center, scoring Conglose, but Welker tried to stretch the hit into a triple and the throw beat him to third, bringing the Crusaders up to bat with the score knotted at 1-all. Elk Catholic answered with a pair of runs of their own, taking over the lead for good. Joe McLaughlin and Ben Cortina both walked to start things off. Vincent Jacob struck out looking and Shea Meyer struck out swinging, and the Crusaders looked to be in danger of leaving McLaughlin and Cortina stranded, when Brennen came up to bat and got the momentum going again. Brennen singled, scoring McLaughlin, and then McCullough walked to load the bases. Singer reached base on an error, scoring Cortina. With a 3-1 count on Ivan Wortman, McCullough got caught too far off of second and was picked off by Neshannock's catcher to end the inning with the Crusaders ahead 3-1.
The Lancers cut into ECC's lead in the top of the third. After Marcus Giangiuli flied out to the second baseman, Ernie Burkes walked and later stole second and third. Strittmatter also reached base after being hit by a pitch. Cioffi flied out to center and Burkes scored on the play to cut Elk's lead to 3-2. Strittmatter was left on base as Sansone grounded out to the pitcher. The Crusaders left one man stranded in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Herzing singled, but never gained any ground as McLaughlin flied out to left and Cortina grounded out to third.
Ryan Giangiuli led off the top of the fourth inning by reaching base after being hit by a pitch. He was replaced by courtesy runner Michael Sanfilippo, who was unable to advance as Herzing fanned the next two batters and Welker brought about the third out as he flied out to the second baseman. The Crusaders scored their final run in the home half of the inning. Jacob led off with a walk and advanced to third on a single by Meyer. Brennen walked to load the bases, but the Crusaders momentarily hit a setback as McCullough struck out. A walk by Singer scored Jacob and left the bases loaded. At this point the Lancers decided to change pitchers, sending Michael Ross to the mound in favor of Welker. Wortman struck out looking and Herzing flied out to the second baseman, leaving the bases loaded and ending the inning with the Crusaders holding on to a 4-2 lead.
Neshannock's batters went down in order in the top of the fifth. With one out in the bottom of the inning, Cortina singled and advanced on a fielder's choice by Jacob. He was left on base, though, as Meyer hit a fly ball into foul territory and it was caught by Strittmatter.
The Lancers' final run came in the top of the sixth. Cioffi singled and advanced to second on a passed ball. The next two batters both grounded out to the third baseman. Conglose singled, scoring Cioffi, and Van Eman brought about the third out after grounding to the pitcher, leaving ECC holding on to a 4-3 advantage. The Crusader batters went down in order in the home half of the inning.
With the game on the line in the top of the seventh, Herzing struck out the first two batters before throwing three straight balls to Burkes. Brennen called his teammates in for a brief conference at the mound and Herzing's next pitch was a strike. However, the next one was a ball, putting what could have been the tying run on base for the Lancers. That brought Strittmatter back up to the plate for Neshannock. After working him into a 2-2 count, Strittmatter managed to barely foul off two straight pitches before Herzing was finally able to take him down swinging to give the Crusaders the 4-3 victory.
The Crusaders are now 18-7 on the season and will advance to face D6 champion Bishop McCort on Monday in a PIAA Class A baseball championship semifinal contest at a site and time to be determined.