By Corey J. Corbin
Allied News Sports Correspondent
MERCER COUNTY AREA —
SLIPPERY ROCK — You can call the Slippery Rock Rockets them late bloomers.
You could maybe call them overachievers. But you definitely have to call them District 10 Champions!
After needing to win 5-of-6 just to qualify for the playoffs, the Rockets (15-7) got used to playing with their backs against the wall and it served them well Monday when they surged back from a 6-2 hole for the program’s first District 10 Class AAA title in baseball with a 7-6 victory in nine innings over Warren at Slippery Rock University’s Jack Critchfield Park.
“(Playing with your back against the wall) makes every pitch and every inning important,” Slippery Rock coach Nate McCollough said. “It gets them into the mindset that every game is going to be like this. Once you get into the playoffs, you’re going to play good competition every day. The three games we’ve had, we’ve beat the three seed, the two seed and the four seed, so you know they’re good. For us to be in close games all year and what we did down the stretch has been huge.
“It feels amazing (to win the District 10 title). I told these guys from the start that they had the potential to be a very special team. I definitely think now that they’re believing. Any coach, any player has that mentality that you’re going to win (a championship).”
By winning Monday, the Rockets ensured themselves at least one game in the PIAA playoffs when they will will face WPIAL third-seed Keystone Oaks or West Allegheny reportedly at Erie’s Jerry Uht Stadium June 3.
“It’s a team game and we came together as a team to do it,” SR senior Cody Stephenson said. “We had to step up our game and work harder. As a freshman, I never thought we’d be able to do it, but here we are. Words can’t describe (winning the District 10 title). We’ve been working since the winter. We worked hard in the gym all winter and all the hard work has paid off. We beat Harbor Creek, who was the three seed, and we beat Grove City, who was the second seed. Warren was the fourth seed.”
Stephenson was one of the main reasons the Rockets are advancing.
The senior right-hander lasted all 9 innings, allowing 6 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks with 6 strikeouts before driving in Travis Lauster for the game-winning run.
“He came out and threw well,” McCullough said. “One inning out of nine, they hit him, but we didn’t help him out either. I can’t say enough about the kid. We know what we’re going to get out of him and we know we’re going to have a chance.”
For the first time all year, an opposing team got on Stephenson when it sent 10 batters to the plate and scored 6 runs, but it all got started with an error and a walk.
“He made a couple good pitches and they made a couple good swings,” McCollough said. “We started the inning off with an error and a walk … that never leads to anything good. If you don’t have that at the beginning of the inning, do we go 1-2-3? I don’t know. There’s a chance. There was no point talking to him, because he was still pitching well and wasn’t getting wild. He had his composure. He’s a senior and has been there before. He had confidence out there and me saying something to him wasn’t going to help him.”
Slippery Rock cut the deficit from 4 runs to 3 when Stephenson walked, stole second and then scored on Mitch Robinson’s single.
Two innings later, freshman Ryan Lauster came up big with a two-run triple before scoring on classmate Josh Bowser’s single to knot the score at 6-all.
“I told them to chip away and keep battling,” McCollough said. “You could tell (Stephenson) believed we were going to come back and win. The way we’ve been playing lately? Everyone believed. I can’t say enough about this group of kids.”
Neither team mounted much of a threat over the sixth, seventh and eighth inning, but the Rockets got going in the bottom of the ninth on Lauster’s inning-opening base knock.
Little brother Ryan Lauster sent a rocket to short that glanced off Tanner Stanz’ glove and into left field before Stephenson’s heroics.
“He hit a ball on the nose,” McCollough said. “We got a guy in scoring position. You always hope someone comes up (big). I kept saying ’Who wants to be that one guy who comes up big?’ That’s the way you want it … get a guy on, move him and someone drives him in. That’s the way baseball is supposed to be played.
“I kept telling them ‘We will win this game 7-6.’ We kept preaching ’Battle, battle, battle. We will win this game 7-6.’ We kept saying it and and it came true.”
The Rockets scored their first two runs in the second inning when Joe Barnhart and freshman Jackson Kerchis followed Robinson’s free pass with back-to-back doubles.
“They’re good,” McCollough said of his freshman class. “I’m not surprised at all (at how much the freshmen have contributed). Jackson had a double that brought in two runs. Ryan Lauster had a triple that brought in a run. Josh Bowser had a single. None of it surprises me. It says a lot for our future hopefully.”
With a week off before playing again, McCollough plans to give his charges some much needed down time for a breather.
“We’re going to give them a day off (Tuesday) and then we’re going to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “We have some guys that need to get in some innings, so we’ll get in an intrasquad game in. We’ll do some game situations in practice then it’ll be a couple of relaxed days where it’s just hitting.”
Notes: No Rocket had more than one hit Monday. … Warren starter Stanz allowed 6 runs over 5 innings on 5 hits and 4 walks, while striking out 9. … Tanner Teconchuck pitched the final 2-plus innings and was saddled with the loss. … Matt Hultquist singled and doubled, Stanz singled twice and Carter Serra tripled to lead the Dragons. … Warren managed just three hits over the final 6 innings off Stephenson. … Slippery Rock had seven hits.