The Port Allegany baseball team showed up in Eldred for its District 9 playoff opener wearing shirts emblazoned, “Underdog Mentality.”
The seventh-seeded Gators displayed that attitude throughout their May 21 game against the Terrors, scoring first and taking a seventh-inning lead on Carter Moses’ first career home run, before the second-seeded Northern Allegheny League co-champions managed to rally in their final at-bat for a 5-4 comeback win and a berth in the Class A semifinals.
“I think that this was probably a really good baseball game to watch, and I’m very proud of that,” Port coach Nate Zitnik said after watching his young club push the deeper, more experienced Terrors (17-4, 9-1 NAL) to the brink of elimination before closing out their own 2019 campaign at 9-9, 6-4 NAL.
Three of those nine losses were to O-E, which went on to finish second and qualify for the PIAA tournament, while two others came at the hands of an equally senior-laden Coudersport team that took second in Class AA, then captured a three-team subregional to also advance to states.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them. I feel like a team with one of the best records in District 9 escaped with one,” Zitnik said. “You look out there and there’s no seniors (on our team). Freshmen in tough spots, a sophomore hitting a home run when the game’s tied. I feel like we’re climbing, we’re on the rise. This is a group that I’m particularly excited about, because a lot of them play summer baseball and they’re all on the rise right now, their baseball IQ’s are higher. The first time we played (O-E), it was the same pitching setup, and we struck out 14 times. It was a close game, but it wasn’t like they were ever nervous (about losing).
“We were a couple of plays away from really putting pressure on them, not just a one-run ballgame. I can’t take anything away from Otto-Eldred. They are very talented, and they are deep. I wish them the best, but the season was a success in our eyes, just from the growth and the progress that we’ve made.”
Port took an early lead on junior Howie Stuckey’s first-inning homer, but the Terrors scored twice in the bottom half of the inning, with sophomore slugger Cole Sebastian matching Stuckey’s blast for his team-high eighth homer and O-E adding another run on an error.
That’s where it stayed until the top of the fourth, when the PAHS junior class made its presence known. Stuckey ripped a double down the left-field line and came around to score on Montgomery Tanner’s single back through the box, back-to-back steals put Tanner on third, and when Josh Rees’ fly ball dropped safely into short right field, the Gators owned a 3-2 lead.
Once again, though, the Terrors rallied, with Andrew Sheeler singling home Trent Windsor to knot the score at 3-3 going into the fifth inning.
On the mound, Stuckey and O-E senior Chase Sebastian were matching strikeout for strikeout, but the Gator ace’s pitch count was beginning to add up. Hitting the postseason limit after throwing to the first three batters in the fifth, Stuckey switched positions with sophomore shortstop Ethan Sprankle, leaving the mound after a four-hit, seven-strikeout, three-walk outing.
The Terrors appeared to take the lead in the bottom of the sixth, but a batter-interference call erased the run and Sprankle (2 SO) recorded a strikeout and a fly-ball out to escape the inning, and it was still 3-3 going into the final frame.
That’s when Moses drove an 0-1 pitch over the fence in left-center field, giving the Gators the lead and sending his teammates spilling out of the dugout to meet him at home plate.
Once again, though, the Terrors battled back in the bottom of the frame. A single and a trio of walks tied the game, and with the bases still loaded, Cameron Magee’s line drive into left field sent pinch-runner Ryan Love home with the game-deciding score.
While the Terrors celebrated their close call, Zitnik held one final postgame chat with his players.
“I told them moral victories are the worst, but what are you going to do? There’s a couple plays we would’ve liked to have had back, but I don’t think anyone walked out of here thinking, ‘Man, why did Port Allegany enter the playoffs?’ That’s all you can ask for,” he said.
“I think if we would’ve won that, I think we would’ve been happy, but our guys are hungry. They were ready to make a run.
“I wouldn’t trade them. I really wouldn’t. After you coach high school sports for long enough, you start to put things in perspective. Having guys that are coachable, that’s what makes it fun. You can see them grow. Wins and losses are definitely important, but it’s not the be-all, end-all. I can’t say enough about this group of young guys.
I had a lot of fun coaching. It was the worst year weather-wise, and one of my favorite years coaching. It’s been a pleasure to have these guys. You didn’t have the typical high school stuff, you didn’t have anything from parents or kids. It was just all support all year, and you can see all the good things that have come from that,” said Zitnik.