By John Knebels
Photos by Mike Nance for PSD
BOYERTOWN, PA – La Salle is one win away from a state championship.
No team deserves it more.
The Explorers’ latest beauty was a 2-0 PIAA Class 6A victory over District 1 toughie North Penn Monday afternoon at Boyertown High School. Outstanding pitching, superb defense, and a well-executed offense proved to be enough to reserve a visit to Penn State University 4:30 Friday afternoon.
“Well played ballgame by both teams,” said La Salle coach Kyle Werman. “I am happy for these guys, and we are excited for our next opportunity.”
The Explorers’ next opponent, District 7 champ North Allegheny of Wexford, is ranked first in the state and, like the Explorers, have captured two previous state crowns. La Salle is ranked second. A win over the Tigers would juxtapose the order of one-two, but the Explorers don’t much care about rankings.
Among the repeated narratives about this group of Explorers is their ability to win all kinds of games – 24 in a row after a 1-2 start dating back to a Catholic League win over Roman Catholic on April 6.
In their 21-8 win over Emmaus in the quarterfinal, for instance, they trailed 7-2 in the fourth and answered the steep challenge by sending 20 batters to the plate and scoring 15 runs in the fifth – believed to be a state tournament record dating back to 1977.
So, naturally, La Salle comes back in the semis and rides a spectacular performance by senior Ryan Marler, who tossed a complete-game shutout against a potent North Penn lineup that, in the quarterfinals, had blanked District 1 champ Neshaminy, 9-0.
Also the winning pitcher in La Salle’s 3-2, eight-inning Catholic League championship triumph over Archbishop Wood on June 1 in which he threw four no-hit, no-walk innings of relief, Marler surrendered six harmless singles (one of them a clearly blown call by the first-base umpire) and didn’t walk a batter. His sixth strikeout ended the game and sent the jubilant Explorers to a victory celebration for the 25th time this spring.
“This one was fun,” said La Salle senior outfielder Justin Machita, one of seven Explorers to either get on base or knock in a run. “A really fast game. Ryan Marler came out and dominated. It was awesome to see that.
“We really tried to slow it down. We wanted to make sure that we were not counting our last six outs there. Get one play at a time. If the ball gets hit to you, just make the play. Ryan did a great job of staying dominant those last two innings. This is awesome.”
The Explorers broke through in the fifth. Junior Jeph Hadson-Taylor led off with an infield single, busting it down the line after a nice play in the hole. He then stole second base. After a single and subsequent steal by senior Jake Whitlinger placed runners on second and third, senior Eric Shandler lofted a sacrifice fly to left that scored Hadson-Taylor.
On the same play, Whitlinger surprised the Knights by taking third just ahead of the throw. Senior Mason Sermarini rewarded his teammate’s high IQ by slamming a sacrifice fly to right-center that scored Whitlinger, who, taking no chances, slid headfirst into an unoccupied home plate.
Though only facing a two-run deficit, North Penn appeared stunned.
“It changed the momentum of the game,” said Hadson-Taylor. “I feel that we got more relaxed and we were ready to finish the game out strong.”
While flummoxed by Marler, North Penn was frustrated by La Salle’s defense.
Facing the Knights’ cleanup hitter with runners on first and second and one out in the first inning, Whitlinger scooped a ground ball, stepped on second, and fired a strike to Sermarini at first for a rally-killing double play. With runners on first and second and two outs in the third, Hadson-Taylor calmly backhanded a laser to his right and stepped on third for the final out.
North Penn’s final 12 outs comprised four fly balls to senior Dan Wagner in center, two to senior Joe Cattie in right, two pop-ups to Whitlinger at second, a Whitlinger-to-Sermarini groundout, and three strikeouts.
“Marler pitched a helluva game,” said Whitlinger. “He’s a stud. We just defend behind him. We lay out for balls if we have to. When a pitcher is on like that, it’s super fun to play defense.”
True to form, Marler downplayed his inspiring outing.
“I was trying to hit my spots and corners,” said Marler. “Let them do what they were going to do in the box and hit it to our guys. I know that we have one of the best defenses in the entire state.
“I am really happy that they were making plays behind me. I owe it all to them honestly. They were hitting the ball, but we were catching it. It’s a lot of relief off my shoulders when guys are making plays like that.”
A stickler for fundamentals, Werman commended the Explorers’ intelligence and smart aggressiveness in the fifth inning.
“We got a stolen base,” said Werman. “Whitlinger made a read on the first sac fly with the guy not being on the bag. He saw that the guy was off and he read it. And then we get another sac fly. So, credit to our base runners being opportunistic and getting in position to score.
“If you take a good approach and hit the ball in the middle of the field, that’s where sacrifice flies come from and RBI’s. That’s what we look for our guys to do. We talk about our formula. We need to defend. We need to make the routine plays. We need to throw strikes and make them earn every one of their bases.
Incredible photo by Philadelphia Sports Digest photographer Mike Nance of La Salle's Jake Whitlinger's dive into home plate on a sacrifice fly by Mason Sermarini scoring the 2nd run of the game.
“They hit the ball hard today. We hit some balls hard. The routine plays we made. We made a couple of stellar plays. And you look up and you are forcing them to string multiple hits to beat you.”
Werman said he was “excited” to coach in his first state final.
“Coaches are wondering how we are going to get there and hotels, and I said, ‘I have no idea,’ because I am going to wait until today is over,” said Werman. “I’ll be making some phone calls, and I’m excited to figure out how we do that.”
Most probably, the itinerary will be flawlessly executed.
Gameday photos by Mike Nance for PSD