WASHINGTON, D.C. – For Penn State Harrisburg, it was the ultimate turnaround. The Lions managed just seven wins in each of the past two seasons. What followed was a new coach, plenty of new faces and plenty of success. Some would say the season's defining moments came during the team's 16-game win-streak. Others might have said it was racking up a program-record 23 regular season victories. But Penn State Harrisburg wasn't satisfied with what others thought of their 2013 campaign. Instead, the Lions defined it themselves.
The Penn State Harrisburg men's baseball team won its first North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) championship on Sunday, May 5 by defeating two-time defending NEAC regular season champion Penn State Berks 4-3 at Gallaudet's Hoy Field in Washington, D.C. The conference title gave the Lions an automatic berth to the upcoming NCAA Division III championship tournament. Junior outfielder Dalton Trolinger (Carlisle, Pa. / Cumberland Valley) was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
The Blue & White got off to a rocky start in the top of the first inning when two errors led to two Penn State Berks runs. Penn State Harrisburg starting pitcher Clint Hicks (State College, Pa. / State College) got two quick outs before back-to-back defensive slipups led to Clint Faust and Ryan Tantala plating, giving Berks an early 2-0 advantage.
The opposing Lions added another run in the top of the third. Faust reached base on a fielder's choice before stealing second and advancing to third on a wild pitch. Nick Vitelli singled to left field, drove in Faust and extended Berks' lead to 3-0.
After leaving the bases loaded to end the first inning and stranding two runners in the third, Harrisburg's offense finally put together a big stanza in the home half of the fourth. Freshman third baseman Clay Thrasher (Hummelstown, Pa. / Lower Dauphin) got things rolling with a single up the middle. Sophomore catcher Tim Gonzalez (Whittier, Calif. / St. Paul) moved him to second base with a single down the left field line and sophomore shortstop John Cataldo's (Pine Grove, Pa. / Pine Grove) ensuing sacrifice bunt advanced both runners. A wild pitch allowed Thrasher to score and Gonzalez to move along to third before Trolinger's single up the middle plated him and cut the deficit to 3-2. After juniors Travis Crammer (Cerritos, Calif. / Cerritos) and Colton Houseal (Maytown, Pa. / Donegal) reached base, sophomore Branden Rutt (Ephrata, Pa. / Ephrata) tied the game with a single through the right side that scored Crammer from second and moved Houseal to third. Like he had 42 times before, freshman Bryan Balshy (Palmyra, Pa. / Palmyra), the Lions' RBI-leader, came through with a man in scoring position when he singled to left field and drove-in the game-winning run in Houseal.
Hicks and the boys behind him used some clutch defense and a lucky break to get out of a jam in the top of the sixth. With the bases loaded and one away, Hicks got Spayd to ground out to Cataldo at short. Cataldo got the out at second but the turn was too late to get Spayd at first. With the game seemingly tied, Keeanu Erb was called for runner's interference for over-sliding the bag and intentionally sliding into Crammer as he made the play at second base. Spayd was ruled out and Berks' tying run was wiped from the board.
Berks threatened again in the top of the seventh when Harrisburg found itself dealing with runners on second and third with just one out recorded. Sophomore reliever Tom Chaney (Lancaster, Pa. / Lampeter-Strasburg) spelled Hicks on the mound and worked out of the jam by striking out Vitelli and getting Tantala to fly out to junior Ross Baker (Hummelstown, Pa. / Lower Dauphin) in left field.
The score remained the same as Chaney took the mound in the top of the ninth inning. Penn State Berks' first batter, Dillon Landrigan, popped up to Cataldo at short. Faust was the next batter and he flied out to left field. Vitelli stepped to the plate representing Berks' last chance. He turned on a Chaney offering and hit a ball deep to left field. Baker circled under it, straddled the left field line and made the catch, sealing the hard-fought victory and first-ever conference championship.
Harrisburg's players rushed from the field and dugout, swarmed Chaney and dog piled on the mound in celebration while a pair of players doused first-year Head Coach Ryan Bown with the traditional cooler of water. In one-short year, Bown took the Lions from the NEAC's basement and led them to a conference crown in the school's last season as a member of the league. Penn State Harrisburg will move to the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) beginning in the fall of 2013.
"We set ourselves up nicely with the two wins on Friday and that was huge," said Bown postgame. "Today was just a battle…and our pitchers did a great job keeping us in the game and gave our offense a chance to score enough runs to win the game. We're really happy to end our stay in the NEAC on a positive note and to get the opportunity to keep playing baseball."
Hicks threw 6.1 innings, allowing nine hits but just one earned run in addition to striking out two Berks' batters. The win was his sixth of the season. Chaney was strong in his 2.2 innings of work, giving up just two hits and striking out two batters. He picked up his conference-leading sixth save of the season.
Trolinger went 2-4 from the plate with an RBI on the day. For the tournament, he racked up six hits, four runs, two RBIs, a stolen base and a .600 batting average. Houseal finished 2-3 with a run scored while Thrasher and Gonzalez each went 2-4 and scored a run. Balshy drove in his conference-leading 43rd RBI while Rutt notched his team-high 52nd hit and added an RBI. Crammer scored his NEAC-leading 41st run.
Trolinger, Houseal and junior Cole Nye (Newmanstown, Pa. / Eastern Lebanon) are among the players that stuck with the program during its forgettable seasons the past two springs. Their persistence and determination paid off Sunday afternoon. Now they're champions.
"It's quite the turnaround," said Trolinger moments after being named the tournament MVP. "There are a lot of new faces on the team and everyone contributed. It's just a great team all around."
Their latest and most important victory improved the Lions to 26-14 on the season. Harrisburg, the tournament's number three seed, avenged two regular season losses to Penn State Abington by defeating the opposing Lions 9-1 in the NEAC tournament opener on Friday, May 3, before defeating Berks 4-3 in the team's second playoff game of the day later that afternoon. The pair of wins earned Harrisburg a bye while Berks, the four seed, eliminated Abington and the number one overall seed in Gallaudet on Saturday, May 4.
The 2013 season has been one of redemption for Penn State Harrisburg. The NEAC title is the culmination of hard work dating back nearly nine months. The victory was the biggest in school-history but the Lions aren't done just yet. The Blue & White will find out the identity of its NCAA tournament first round opponent following the conclusion of this year's Division III conference tournaments.