HOMER CITY, Pa. – For a moment, it looked as if Punxsutawney was about to stage another thrilling rally, but the Chucks came up just short, falling to unbeaten Central 6-5 in the PIAA Class 3A semifinals.
The Chucks led 3-1, then trailed 6-3 and cut the margin to 6-5, but the Dragons were able to close it out.
“We gave them everything they wanted and more,” said Punxsutawney coach Mike Dickey. “They’re hurting. They didn’t come here to lose.”
The potent Dragons offense came to life in the fifth, scoring five runs, all with two outs, with Devon Boyle delivering the big blow, a three-run home run to straightaway center that made it 4-3 Central. Parker Gregg reached via a hit by pitch and Jeff Hoenstine walked to set the stage for Boyles.
Punxsy starting pitcher Jake Sikora, who has been a workhorse for the Chucks all postseason, was lifted a batter later after waking Hunter Smith.
Sikora’s final line read five runs allowed in 4 ⅔ innings on four hits with four strikeouts and two walks.
“He gutted it out,” Dickey said of Sikora. “He’s been lights out the whole postseason and that’s what we needed from him. With (Isaac) London working his way back from being hurt, Jake gave us everything he had. He was fantastic. I can’t say enough about him.”
After Smith reached, Griff Snowberger drew a walk and Central starting pitcher Ty Helsel delivered an RBI single, with a throwing error allowing the Dragons’ sixth run of the game to cross the plate.
“Just a couple pitches got away and he hung a change-up,” Dickey continued on Sikora’s performance. “One pitch. I mean they’ve scored 335 runs. We held them to six. We did our jobs. Against a team like that, you can’t think ahead. And you saw that very quickly. I never let my head go there.”
The Chucks, like they have done all season, battled back, cutting the margin to one, 6-5, with a pair of runs in the sixth.
With two outs, Peyton Hetrick (who reached on a fielder’s choice) and courtesy runner Easton Gula (running for Sikora, who singled) scored on wild pitches by Boyles, a Radford commit who came on in relief of Helsel in the sixth.
“That’s our trademark, we never quit,” Dickey said. “We tell them all the time there’s no clock in baseball. These guys battled to the last pitch every single day. They exemplify what Punxsy baseball is.”
London worked his way out of a jam in the bottom of the sixth to give the Chucks a shot down one, but Boyles was able to retire the side in order in the top of the seventh, including a pair of strikeouts to end it.
“I just can’t say enough about them,” Dickey said of his team. “At one point we were 6-5 (after a loss to St. Marys on April 27) and our season was at a crossroads. Then we went on the road and beat a talented Johnsonburg team and we hadn’t lost since until today. The more they started putting together, there seemed to be a different guy doing it every day and they started believing. Then the playoff wins started happening. The belief was there.”
Central took an early lead in the first when LSU commit Paxton Kling led off with a double and came around to score on Boyles’ RBI groundout.
Punxsy tied the game in the third when London was hit by a pitch and came around to score on Carter Savage’s sacrifice fly.
The score remained 1-1 until the fifth when the Chucks struck for a pair of runs. Sikora singled with one out and, after Helsel got a strikeout, Josh Tyger brought in courtesy runner Owen Wood with an RBI single. Ashton Stonbraker made it 3-1 with an RBI double on a ball that narrowly missed leaving the yard.
Sikora finished with two of the Chucks’ five hits, while Boyles drove in four for Central.
Helsel got the win, allowing three runs on four hits in five innings, striking out five, and walking five.
With the win, Central advances to play Lancaster Catholic, a 3-0 winner over Neumann-Goretti in the other semifinal, in the state championship game on Friday.
For Punxsy, they were left to reflect on a heck of a run.
“We told them getting to these state playoff games is the most fun you’ll ever have playing baseball,” Dickey said. “They’re not feeling that at the moment, but it was a hell of run. They were fantastic. They did everything we asked them to do. They bought into our philosophy and you see the results.”