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State High Baseball: Pushing Past the Pain of ‘Pitchgate’

by on June 14, 2018 8:40 AM

More than two weeks have passed since State College’s baseball team lost by forfeit in a sub-regional PIAA playoff game. The Little Lions outscored Erie McDowell, but their season ended due to a controversial ruling that State High pitcher David Shoemaker had thrown too many pitches.

Every athlete knows the agony of defeat. But who has ever experienced that very agony in the midst of a victory? How did State College baseball players feel when they lost their shot at a state championship, despite winning on the scoreboard at Slippery Rock University?  

“It was just a crushing feeling,” says Shoemaker. “Helplessness.”

By now, perhaps the pain has diminished a bit. Life has moved on, the seniors have graduated and all the players have moved into their summer routines. But I can guarantee you this:  none of them will ever forget the gut-wrenching, heart-rending conclusion to State High’s 2018 season.

I speak from experience. Yes, I played baseball for State High back before the earth’s crust had hardened, and I will never forget the painful ending to our 1970 season. An unfortunate incident tarnished our efforts, and I still remember all the details, 48 years later.  But before I tell that strange story, what can we say about the recent diamond disaster?

NEAR TO VICTORY

The Lions seemed to be in complete control as their game with Erie McDowell approached its end. State College held a 3-2 lead and Shoemaker was dominating from the mound — having retired the first two Trojan hitters in the final inning. But suddenly, the action was halted and consultations began among coaches, umpires and PIAA officials.

The issue under discussion was pitch count, a limit that exists to help protect pitchers from injury.  The PIAA’s rule says that once a hurler has tossed 100 pitches he cannot begin throwing to a new hitter. According to the scorebook kept by McDowell, Shoemaker had already thrown 101 pitches when he started pitching to the second hitter. According to the State College scorebook,  and two other State High pitch counters, his total was just 97 at that point.

But because McDowell was designated as the home team, the Trojans’ count was official. Erie McDowell was declared winner by forfeit.  But then, but oddly enough — almost cruelly — the PIAA insisted that the game be finished. And so relief pitcher Kevin Karstetter replaced Shoemaker and quickly recorded the final out. State High had won, but State High was done.

The 2017 State College team had advanced all the way to the semifinal game of the state championships.  How bizarre for the 2018 team to lose before the first round and on a technicality. “My biggest pain which is still fairly raw,” says State College coach Troy Allen, “is for the seniors and the rest of the team, that this is going to be their memory for the rest of their lives.”


David Shoemaker displays his left-handed prowess from the mound. Photo by Pam Kraycik

* * *

I know Coach Allen is right. Indeed, my own memories from 1970 are still fresh with the details of disappointment. I was a mediocre first baseman for State High, but I enjoyed playing for a strong team that was leading our league.

One day, as the season neared its end, we went up the mountain to play Philipsburg-Osceola, led by venerable coach Shorty Davis. Shorty’s boys whipped us that day — and that was just the start of our troubles.

On the way home, we got out our bag lunches, and shortstop Steve Ellis impulsively threw his milk carton onto the windshield of a passing car. Steve had mischief in mind, not malice, but the driver must have been shocked when his vision was dangerously blanketed by a white liquid. First, he turned on his windshield wipers, but then he immediately drove to the nearby state police barracks. Within 10 minutes, our bus was pulled over by an officer.

Ellis was leading the league in hitting, but our coach, Bob Smith, had no choice but to bench him for the last couple games of the year. A pair of losses followed, we finished the schedule in a tie with Bald Eagle Area, and then we lost a special playoff game to BEA. No doubt, other factors, like a hitting slump, contributed to our demise, but I will absolutely never forget the sight of that milky automobile windshield.  

* * *

Likewise, the 2018 Little Lions will never forget “Pitchgate,” though their pain will eventually morph into resignation and perhaps humor. My advice for the players and their parents is to focus on the positives. When you step back and take a broader look, State College enjoyed some fantastic results this season:

Overcoming Adversity.  Of course, every team in central Pennsylvania battled with horrendous weather and rescheduling hassles. But I doubt if any school faced a tougher stretch than when the Lions had to play nine games in 12 days. “I kept telling them that I was proud of them,” says Allen, “but ‘proud’ is not quite the word. It would be stronger than that. I commend them for gutting it out through the weather, maintaining their grade point averages and coming to the ballpark ready to fight every day.”

Of course, the Lions suffered injuries, but several of their comebacks were especially impressive. Outfielder Ryan Kraycik battled a hamstring problem, but when he returned to the lineup, he immediately went on a 7-for-7 hitting streak. Infielder Brenden Franks suffered a shattered nose from a bad hop during State High’s 16-6 win over Bellefonte, but he amazed everyone by returning to action — with a protective mask — in less than a week. Rather than shrink back from the baseball, Franks fielded well at both first base and third, and he hit with greater authority than before his injury.

Much of the determination that was shown by the Little Lions could be traced to the example of assistant coach Dave Jameson. Jameson is dealing with Parkinson’s disease, and there were days when he was obviously not feeling well. He traveled to Arizona for medical treatment this spring, and that trip took place when the team was struggling. While Jameson was away, Coach Allen spoke of his sacrifice. “For you to loaf or lollygag or not show up ready to play on a given day,” he said, “that’s disrespectful to Dave. Because he gives us 100 percent whether he’s got it or not.”

Allen’s words resonated with the ballplayers, especially because of their great respect for Jameson. “It was a perspective changer,” says Shoemaker. Key wins followed for State High, including a 5-0 victory over Cedar Cliff (then 12-3 and second in the Mid Penn Conference) and a 12-1 thrashing of Altoona in the District 6 championship game.


Jack Hurley scores for State High in mid-season win over Bellefonte. Photo by Pam Kraycik

Achieving Academic Success. Allen enjoys a situation that many other coaches would envy. He doesn’t need to say too much about academics, because virtually all of his boys are top-notch students. When he told me that his team’s academic average was “hovering around 4.0,” I thought he was joking. But, when he added, “I know it’s better than 3.8,” I realized he was serious.

Indeed, many of the Little Lions take Advanced Placement classes and thus have averages significantly above 4.0. Ivy League recruiters are beginning to take note, and Shoemaker has already committed himself to attend the University of Pennsylvania after he graduates next year.

Serving Others. Jeff Shoemaker is David’s father, and I’ve known Jeff since he handled a home mortgage for my wife and me in 2013. Despite his acute disappointment over the McDowell playoff game (“To forfeit a game over two or three pitches is beyond asinine”), Jeff maintains a broader perspective.  He notes that that all of the State High players volunteer to help with Challenger baseball, a Little League adaptive program for individuals with physical and intellectual challenges.

“They sacrifice a lot of their Saturday mornings during the season to work with kids and young adults who are less fortunate,” says Jeff. “It’s inspiring. It’s good for them and good for the community. And it’s a culture thing that is created by Coach Allen and his staff. It’s either part of a team’s DNA or it’s not.”

Responding to the Shocking Forfeit. Imagine how Allen’s players could have reacted to the playoff forfeit that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Of course, they were shocked and saddened, but they did not engage in any visible demonstration of anger. Indeed, right after the game ended, Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper, the father of two Little Lion players, complimented David Shoemaker on his stellar pitching performance. A week later, Cooper told David that when he offered his congratulations, he knew nothing of the forfeit. That’s because nothing had been said over the public address system, and the State College players had conducted themselves with maturity.    

“Thirty years from now,” said Jeff Shoemaker, “I think I’ll still be just as proud of how the players reacted — and the coaches, too. I’d like to think that as a coach I’d react with that much class.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

As Coach Troy Allen looks to the future, he anticipates a procedural change by the PIAA to install one neutral scorekeeper for all playoff games. “When you have a home team in charge of the official book,” says Allen, “that’s like the fox guarding the hen house.” Further, he says, “We had four umpires on the field. If you asked all the coaches if they would trade an umpire for an official scorekeeper — so this wouldn’t happen to them like it did to us — I guarantee you they would all say, ‘Absolutely!’ “

Concerning his team’s prospects for next year, Allen is optimistic. He has loads of talent returning, including pitchers Shoemaker and Karstetter. And his boys are already motivated. “They’ll be ready to go when March of 2019 rolls around,” he says. “It (the forfeit) will be front and center in their brains. And they’re going to use it to motivate themselves. I am 100 percent confident in that.”


Assistant Coach Dave Jameson is flanked by State College’s senior players.  From left are Brandon Lingenfelter, Justin Vescio, Steven Plafcan, Ryan Kraycik, Jameson, Danny Adams, Matthew Tomczuk, Ryan Gess and Tyler Simpson. Photo by Pam Kraycik



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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