By John Knebels
Pictures by: Mike Nance
BENSALEM, PA--Dan Wagner’s uniform was caked with dirt. It really didn’t have to be. Could have been cleaner.
But when a program wins as much as La Salle does, the key reason is that the Explorers don’t go through the motions. Ever. So when Wagner approached home plate knowing he was about to solidify a monumental victory, the senior outfielder nixed the idea of merely tapping the dish with his foot. Much better to dive head first into home and leave no doubt that he had scored.
For the third season in a row, La Salle captured the Philadelphia Catholic League baseball championship Tuesday afternoon at Bensalem High School. The Explorers’ 3-2 eight-inning victory over two-seed Archbishop Wood necessitated a seventh-inning rally to erase a 2-1 deficit.
“Staying composed,” said La Salle coach Kyle Werman, explaining why La Salle has so much success in one-run games. “Play seven innings. It’s not six innings. It doesn’t matter when you score the run. We just happened to score the run late.”
Over the past three seasons – last spring was cancelled by the global pandemic – La Salle has accrued an almost unbelievable 44-3 record against the rest of the PCL – 35-3 during the regular season, and 9-0 in the playoffs.
After finishing this campaign a perfect 13-0 in the regular season and sweeping through eight-seed Lansdale Catholic in the quarterfinals, five-seed Devon Prep in the semis, and two-seed Wood in the final, the Explorers have won 19 straight league games dating back to 2019.
“That’s a ridiculous record,” said Wagner. “Credit to Coach. That shows that whether or not you are on or off that day, you find a way to win the game. And that’s what’s important.”
Wood took a 2-1 lead into the seventh thanks to a second-inning two-run homer by junior Sean Slowinski. Down to their final at bat in the seventh, La Salle loaded the bases with one out on singles by senior Nick Astolfi and junior Jephson Hadson-Taylor, and a walk to senior Jake Whitlinger. After a pop out, senior Mason Sermarini came to the plate.
Having been named the PCL’s co/offensive player of the year along with Bonner-Prendergast senior Kevin McMonigle two weeks earlier, there was no one the Explorers would prefer to represent their last chance more than Sermarini.
Having hit the ball hard on three previous fly outs, the Explorers were anticipating a line-drive hit. Instead, Sermarini approached the most important at bat of his career with a different mindset . . . be really patient.
“I came up to the plate and I was feeling great,” said Sermarini. “I’ve been swinging it well all season. I knew we were one hit away from a championship.”
Instead of trying to be the hero, Sermarini took two super-close pitches and coaxed a game-tying walk to force home senior courtesy runner Josh Mackunis with the tying run.
“It’s a team sport,” said Sermarini. “I knew we were going to come up the next inning. It’s about being disciplined and taking it one pitch at a time. You’d love to be the guy that closes it out. In the end, I trust my team to do what we’ve being doing all year. We were ready to execute and we did what we had to do. This is as good as it gets.”
In the extra frame, Wagner stroked a one-out double. With junior Brian Baquero batting, Wagner broke for third. Baquero slapped a hard ground ball, and an errant throw to first base allowed Wagner to score without a throw.
After Wagner crossed the plate, the entire La Salle dugout raced to first base to celebrate a tantalizing title.
“When you’re running hard down the base, there’s a runner in front of him, there’s a lot of things going through his head,” said Baquero. “He has to check the runner . . . and then he also has to try to get you out. And when that happens, sometimes things just go your way, and that’s baseball at the end of the day.”
The Explorers might not have been in position to reach extra innings had it not been for pitcher Ryan Marler, one of the league’s top hurlers before an ankle injury cost him a decent chunk of the regular season.
The senior right-hander entered the game in the fifth with La Salle trailing, 2-1. With runs being at such a premium, a Wood insurance tally would have been massive. Marler faced 12 batters over four innings. Outside of a hit-batter with one out in the sixth that was erased by Astolfi on a steal attempt, Marler’s line score included five fly outs, four groundouts, and two strikeouts.
“Ryan Marler has ice water in his veins,” said Werman. “He’s a guy you trust in any situation. He pitches first strikes . . . just no emotion . . . competes. Fantastic.”
Werman extolled an Archbishop Wood team that represented La Salle’s toughest challenge during the regular season, a 3-2 La Salle win back on May 7.
“Two really good teams,” said Werman. “Coach (Jim) DiGuiseppe does a great job. They pitched a heckuva ballgame. Both teams hit balls really hard. I kept telling our guys to hang around, and we got a chance late.
“You play them 10 times and maybe there’s a split. We just happened to get the first two this year.”
Now with three league titles, Werman was asked to assess where this one stood.
“They all rank really high,” said Werman. “They’re all special in their own way. Right now, this is my favorite one because it’s the one we’re in right now, and we’re enjoying it.”
The noise in the background from ecstatic players and fans indicated that he wasn’t alone.
Both La Salle and Wood won District 12 titles and will advance to the first round of the PIAA state tournament this Monday at times to be determined. Ironically, La Salle’s Class 6A contest against Hatboro-Horsham will take place at Archbishop Wood while Archbishop Wood’s 5A meeting versus Oxford will be hosted by La Salle High School.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)