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State College Little Leaguers: A Little Grit Goes a Long Way

by on July 06, 2018 5:00 AM

Nothing could test the determination of a Little League team like losing its opening game by a score of 13-0.  But that’s exactly what happened to State College’s 12-and-under All Stars when they traveled to Big Valley in late June.

The State College kids went hitless, made something like 12 errors and went home early when the mercy rule was invoked. Mercy? It must have been torture for kids with Williamsport dreams to pack up their gear after just four innings. Or maybe it was a chance to grow from adversity.

As Coach Mac Wright told his players, “We’re just going to put that game away. We’re going to work hard for a few days, come back and win.”

And they did. Rather than gripe at umpires or snipe at each other, the State College players showed their grit by dominating the District 5 losers’ bracket. Wright’s team beat Penns Valley, 13-3, shocked Big Valley in a rematch, 6-3, and defeated Philipsburg-Osceola, 5-3.  

Then, on Thursday night, State completed its ascent from the depths by triumphing over Bald Eagle Area, 4-1. In a game that was shortened to five innings by lightning, starting pitcher Kody Aurandt threw four innings of perfect ball, and Jack Messina poked a two-run homer.       

So how about that? The team that began All Star play with a horrific loss is now slated to battle Bellefonte for the district title.

Bellefonte represents a huge challenge, having won its tournament games by scores of 19-5, 9-0 and 17-0. And, as the representative from the winner’s bracket, Bellefonte enters with rested pitchers and the need to win just one game. The State College Little Leaguers, meanwhile, must beat Bellefonte twice (Saturday night and Monday night) behind a depleted pitching staff if they are to win District 5.  

But when you opened a tournament with a devastating defeat, it’s fabulous to make the championship round — no matter who the opponent is. “The kids are excited,” said assistant coach Brian Graupensperger. “After that first game, I don’t think anybody felt very good. It wasn’t pretty.”


In looking back on State College’s tour through the loser’s bracket, two wins stand out as especially impressive. The first, of course, was that rematch win over Big Valley. So tell us, Coach Wright, what enabled your guys to turn the tables from a 13-0 loss to a 6-3 victory?

“We had a couple kids in that first game who weren’t at 100 percent,” says Wright. “And they’re 12-year-olds, so something small (an error or a bad call) can feel like a very big thing when the pressure’s on. We were tight in that first game, and we got our doors blown off.”

Then there was that curve ball thing. Big Valley’s starting pitcher dominated with his breaking ball in the first game, so State College went to work in practice before the second game. “We had the pitching machine out there,” says Wright, “and we got 100 curve balls to each kid.”

Ironically, it was a great bunt by catcher Cam Thompson that ignited State’s key rally in the rematch. After Thompson got on base, Nate Price smacked a single. A walk and several wild pitches also boosted the cause and State scored three runs in the fifth inning. From a defensive standpoint, State College played steady in the field and got excellent pitching from starter Aurandt who was fresh and healthy after feeling some “tweaks” in the first Big Valley game.   

“It was an awesome thing to get Big Valley again,” notes Wright, “to get that test right away with just one game in between.”

State College Little Leaguers celebrate a victory with Coach Mac Wright.  (Photo by Jen Chesnut)


And so it was on to Philipsburg and another memorable effort. After two scoreless innings, State College put two runners on base via Nick Belinc’s liner to center and Owen Yerka’s bunt. Messina had singled off the right field wall in the first inning, but this time his smash cleared the fence, hit the base of the scoreboard and put a 3 on that board.  

In the fifth, P-O trailed by 5-1 when its pitcher Jaymie Massung came to the plate with one runner on base. Massung smacked a no-doubter over the center field fence, and now the game’s outcome seemed much more in doubt. Massung, by the way, also showed outstanding ability as a hurler, going the entire game and striking out 14 hitters.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Messina became State College’s third pitcher of the evening as he followed starter Gino Pighetti and reliever Ben Graupensperger. He opened with a strikeout of Justin Ivicic but then hit Hayden Kephart with a pitch. A walk to Lucas Peterson and a strikeout of Sean Meyers brought Gahlon Nevel to the plate with the dangerous Massung in the on-deck position.

Suddenly, some old-fashioned Little League mania visited Homer Maney Field. Messina’s second pitch to Nevel went to the backstop, but catcher Thompson grabbed it and threw to third to prevent an advance by Kephart. Alas, that throw eluded State’s third baseman just as Kephart turned back toward second. But when Kephart saw the ball in left field, he reversed direction and took off for third, which was temporarily uncovered. Left fielder Jensen Chesnut had backed up the Thompson throw and he threw to third where pitcher Messina — planning to back up the base — detoured to provide coverage. Kephart was out on a throw from a backup to a backup, and the game ended without Massung batting again.    

Wright was delighted but not surprised to see his players execute the old fundamental of backing up their teammates. “We’ve worked on it a ton in practice,” he said. “Jensen’s at the line, backing up, which was phenomenal. And Jack’s one of the headier baseball players you will find and he made a play.”

* * *

Perhaps now it’s time for a personal comment from this former ballplayer. I should be able to offer some perspective since it’s been more than 50 years since I pitched in the old Nittany Valley Little League. In those days, kids who lived in State College Borough played for Nittany Valley; those from the surrounding townships played for Suburban. (As I mentioned in an earlier column, the location of our old field is still marked by an orphan scoreboard at the corner of Science Park Road and College Avenue.)

My input relates to the life-time memories gained from Little League All Star experience. I’m sure I’m speaking for many of my era when I say that Little League images are still embedded in my mind as tightly as the seams are sewn into a baseball.

I recall the good, the bad and the goofy aspects of All Star play. I remember being announced as the starting pitcher when the Nittany Valley All Stars entertained Mountain Top — and as I headed onto the field I tripped on the dugout’s top step. I remember smacking our team’s first hit although I was batting at the bottom of the order. I remember giving up two home runs to a guy named Ray Cingle, later drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. (“Cingle” is pronounced as “single,” but Ray certainly wasn’t hitting any singles against me.) And I remember crying after we lost.

Was I traumatized by the pressures of Little League? No, quite the opposite. Years later, I got better grades on tests than my study habits merited, and I’m sure my Little League experience helped me perform under pressure. Even today, as I reflect on wins and losses from old Gill Field, they all get filed in one mental folder with this label: “Did My Best, Had Lots of Fun.”

I’ve recently heard the same from other Little League veterans, though all are much younger than me.  Luke Janac, a member of last year’s State College 12-and-under team, says his favorite memory is hitting a home run on the first pitch of that team’s first game. Evan Martin, a 2016 player for State College, says he’ll never forget the fun he had with his teammates and the thrill of pitching a two-hitter. Evan’s older brother, Zach, remembers playing “Home Run Derby” with his 2014 teammates.

And local businessman Jeff Shoemaker remembers telling the Little Leaguers he coached about his own All Star playing experience. “I lost at Bellefonte in my last Little League game,” says Shoemaker, “and I wanted my players to know that win or lose, it will stay with you for years.”  

* * *

So how do things look for State College to hang with Bellefonte on Saturday and, if given the opportunity, again on Monday?  

“We played Bellefonte twice earlier this season,” says Coach Wright. “The first game was a loss, 16-1, and that was a wakeup call. The second game was a 5-4 loss, but we were up 4-2 for most of the game.  

“They (Bellefonte) are on a roll, and they are a great baseball team. But we had them on the ropes, so that certainly feels good. It feels like we’ve got a chance.”

Regardless of the outcome, Wright wants his boys to carry away some lifelong memories from their experience together. “I hope they remember practicing hard on hot days and really coming together,” says Wright. “I hope they remember standing along the (dugout) fence and screaming their heads off for the kid out there who made a play.”

Coach Wright arranged for this Slip ‘N Slide opportunity to give his players a break from their hot weather practices. (Photo by Jen Chesnut)

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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