Meyersdale standout Riley Christner wasn’t in the dugout for a few heart-breaking Red Raiders setbacks in title games over the past two seasons.
Even without the painful memories, the Red Raiders’ freshman played with enough determination and motivation to help his team snap a string of bad luck in medal games.
Christner smacked a momentum-swaying, two-run homer to right field in the fifth inning, the biggest of his three hits. The first baseman had three RBI and two runs scored against Portage in Tuesday’s WestPAC baseball championship at Somerset field. He punctuated his day by recording the final three outs of an 8-4 victory in relief of his older brother Connor, who tossed a gem for six-plus innings.
“We just played together like we said we would do at the beginning of the game,” Riley Christner said after the South Division winners beat the North’s Mustangs for Meyersdale’s first conference crown since 2009.
The Raiders had lost each of the past two WestPAC title games as well as a pair of District 5 Class A championship contests in 2012 and 2013. Overall, Meyersdale now has five WestPAC titles and 10 section crowns.
“I really couldn’t take one more silver medal,” Meyersdale coach Wayne Miller said. “We had four (runner-up finishes) in a row between two District 5-A games and two WestPAC games. Some of those were real heart-breakers – one with North Star and one with Township. This feels really good. It’s a monkey off our back.
“We’ve won our share of championships in the past. The last two years were just really rough to get so close and not get it.”
Meyersdale (18-2) never trailed on Tuesday as Portage (16-2) allowed a pair of unearned runs in the first inning, which was extended by a wild pitch on a third strike. Connor Christner singled in a run and scored on Trent Schrock’s single.
The Mustangs tied it in the top of the third. Loading the bases with no outs for the middle of the order. Brad Rosemas’ two-out single plated Luke Dividock and C.W. Miller.
“Portage is really scrappy and they’re really well coached,” Miller said. “They’ll compete with anybody because of the way they play the game.”
Riley and Connor Christner hit consecutive doubles to give the Raiders a 3-2 lead through three innings.
In the Meyersdale fifth, Lance Leydig had an infield single and moved up on Brady McKenzie’s sacrifice bunt. Riley Christner had an 11-pitch at-bat, launching a couple solid shots in foul territory in right before finally connecting for a two-run shot that gave the Raiders a 5-2 advantage.
“I got a little scared because they kept throwing me offspeed pitches,” Riley Christner said. “He gave me one to hit, and I hit it. I just ran around the bases as fast as I could. When I got home, we got everybody else pumped up and got on a roll.”
McCabe agreed that the home run lifted the Raiders.
“I thought the key part of the game was the at-bat when the kid got the home run,” McCabe said. “He must have had four or five foul balls. He hit a good pitch.”
The Mustangs closed within 5-4 in the sixth after Rosemas and Michael Bryja each singled. Brandon Madigan’s grounder to third plated Rosemas. Madigan was called out on a close play at first, which led to McCabe having a lengthy discussion with the umpires.
Bryja eventually scored on back-to-back wild pitches. Zach Coukart singled, but Meyersdale executed an unusual 1-4-3 doubleplay as Jake Swank’s hard hit up the middle caromed off Connor Christner’s glove and bounced to second baseman Ryan Brown, who recorded the out and threw from an almost sitting position to get the out at first on another close call.
“I told the guys before the game we’ve lost the last couple of these because very good players on the other teams stepped up on that day and just won the game,” Miller said. “They either pitched lights out or had the key hit. I told them today it has to be a Red Raider that does it.”
Connor Christner pitched into the seventh, allowing seven hits while striking out eight and walking three, including the first two hitters in the top of the seventh.
“Connor, in this heat that nobody’s seen this year, with him being a big kid, I think the last two or three innings he pitched on guts and heart and adrenaline,” Miller said. “He doesn’t walk anybody. So, when I saw two walks in a row in the seventh. ... I know he wanted to finish it because that’s the kind of competitor he is. But having little brother as an option in the pocket always is a luxury.”
The Raiders’ most recent WestPAC title prior to Tuesday also was against Portage in 2009, when current assistant coach Matt Donaldson had 14 strikeouts and a three-hitter.
“We’ve got to make plays in situations if we’re going to get out of innings, and we didn’t,” said McCabe, whose team is seeded first in 6-A. “Hey, that’s a good ballclub. They’re well-coached. We competed.
“We have our second season and still have to move on. We got here. We didn’t finish. We have a chance to try it again (in the district playoffs).”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.