Bishop McCort coach Chris Pfeil credited Johnsonburg for its seemingly unlikely, if not miraculous comeback victory over the defending state champions on Friday afternoon.
But the veteran coach also conceded that the Crushers will probably spend a lot of time pondering what might have been in the aftermath of a 7-6 loss in 11 innings during a PIAA Class A quarterfinal playoff at Punxsutawney’s Rich Kuntz Memorial Field.
“Give them credit. (Johnsonburg) scrapped and clawed,” Pfeil said after McCort closed a 20-5 season. “But anybody who watched the game knows we’re going to have a long offseason thinking about it.”
That’s because District 6 winner McCort held a solid 6-0 advantage through five innings and starting pitcher Brad Coleman had limited District 9 runner-up Johnsonburg to a pair of hits while striking out six, walking one and hitting a batter.
Johnsonburg found new life in the bottom of the sixth. The Rams sent 12 players to the plate and tied the game with six runs on three hits, five walks and a hit batsman against reliever Justin Vardian, the winner in Monday’s first-round state playoff win over undefeated North Star.
“I’ll take the blame fully on my shoulders for pulling Brad out,” Pfeil said. “We felt we were at the point where we have a lot of confidence in what Justin and Nate (Neiderhiser) can do. We just never thought that the plate would be turned off the way it was. They went up with no intention to swing the bat.”
As he did Monday against North Star, Pfeil took out his starter with a lead after five innings.
The move would have enabled the Crushers to have a full complement of hurlers had they advanced to Monday’s state semifinal against California.
Pfeil felt the strike zone tightened up in the Rams’ six-run sixth.
“There are borderline pitches, but you’ve got to get one in an inning where the guys just stand there and walk,” he said. “We should have made better pitches, I guess, and we had plenty of opportunities in the extra innings but the bottom line is it’s not somebody’s job to turn the plate off after six innings.”
McCort capitalized early in building a six-run lead that might have been much larger.
Overall, the Crushers collected 12 hits and made no errors while Johnsonburg had seven hits and made five errors.
The most glaring statistic might have been McCort’s 17 runners left on base, with 12 stranded in scoring position.
“We had opportunities early in the game that we didn’t capitalize on and we had opportunities in the extra innings that we didn’t capitalize on,” Pfeil said. “Unfortunately, we had guys on third base with less than two outs and we struck out. Those kill you.”
Crushers junior Nathan Neiderhiser started the scoring with a towering solo homer 380 feet over the double-height fence in center field in the second inning.
Coleman doubled and scored on Ethan Neiderhiser’s single that hit the top of the fence at the 350-foot mark in left-center in the fifth.
McCort added four more in the sixth. Jeremy Adams had a triple, Luke Williams hit a run-scoring single and the Crushers benefited from three walks and five stolen bases in the inning.
Williams and Coleman each finished with three hits, and Adams had two.
“It’s never over,” Johnsonburg coach Jeff Peterson said. “We’ve been in situations before where we’ve scored some runs. There is a lot of confidence on this team. These kids have been in big games down in Philly when we played in Legion ball there. In basketball they’ve been to the state championship. They’re not quitters and they’re not going to quit against anybody.”
The Rams (17-3) had a run-scoring single by Frank Kocjancic and a two-run double by Kyle Sheldon during the six-run sixth.
“There were some things we gave them and we took it back,” Peterson said. “It was nice to take it back.”
McCort’s Nathan Neiderhiser pitched a strong four-plus innings into the 11th.
“He did everything we asked him to do,” Pfeil said. “When you’re the visiting team there are only so many times you can allow them to come up in extra innings before they’re going to cash in. He’s had an outstanding season for us. We should have just never been in that situation.”
Johnsonburg junior righty Cole Peterson threw seven innings only four days after pitching a complete game in Monday’s first-round win over Western Beaver. Both times he threw more than 100 pitches.
Rams reliever Quinn Luhr tossed four scoreless frames.
“Cole threw a stellar game early for us,” coach Peterson said. “We had some sloppy plays early and gave them a bunch of runs. Luhr came in and threw an outstanding four innings. An outstanding job of stepping up. The kids battled. Quinn was due for a shot and he got one. What a comeback.”
In the bottom of the 11th, Cole Peterson walked and Mitchell Holmberg singled. Luhr’s two-out single to center plated the game-winner.
It was an emotional ending to the season for McCort, which has had three consecutive 20-plus win seasons.
Pfeil and senior first baseman Williams hugged near the visiting dugout.
“Two great seniors, Luke Williams and Zaine Tomkowski, are kids who came out for us the past three years, worked as hard as we asked them to do and never made excuses,” Pfeil said. “They were great leaders.
“That was one of the things we talked about at the meeting after the game,” he added. “Our underclassmen need to take their leadership and character with them. They’re great players and they work hard in the classroom. We’re going to miss them. They’re going to go on to college and be great people. My heart breaks for them.”