Avonworth says disputed call in PIAA finals shifted momentum in 12-0 loss to Neumann-Goretti

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Friday, June 14, 2024 | 7:41 PM


STATE COLLEGE — Every bit of momentum was on Neumann-Goretti’s side when Andrew Dankanich bounced a game-ending grand slam off the left-field foul pole, handing Avonworth a 12-0 loss in five innings.

What shifted that momentum in the PIAA Class 3A final is maybe up for debate.

Avonworth coach Jeff Bywalski pointed to a fourth-inning play where Cooper Scharding was called out at first base in a still-scoreless game at Penn State’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Bywalski argued that Neumann-Goretti’s first baseman didn’t make a clean catch on the throw from shortstop, Scharding was safe, and two Avonworth runs should’ve scored.

Instead, Scharding’s out ended the inning, and Neumann-Goretti scored seven runs in the bottom of the fourth.

“It’s a whole different baseball game,” Bywalski said. “Momentum is everything in a championship game and we lost it. It cost us, and the at-bats for them in the next inning become a lot more confident at-bats. Instead of being down two when you’re gripping the bats a little bit in the championship game, it changes.”

Neumann-Goretti (21-6) scored five more runs in the fifth inning, punctuated by Dankanich’s grand slam that gave the District 12 champion its third PIAA title.

WPIAL champion Avonworth (18-10) was in the state finals for the first time.

“I thought he caught it, but I didn’t see it,” Neumann-Goretti coach Nick Nardini said of the disputed play. “My first baseman did say he bobbled it. … But at the end of the day, we answered the bell.”

Pitching depth was maybe a bigger issue for Avonworth.

The team’s two best pitchers, sophomore Scharding and senior Aidan Tinker, were eligible to pitch but unavailable to throw, Bywalski said. Avonworth started sophomore Carson Franc, who pitched the first 3⅓ innings, and used senior Jacob Hanny and sophomore Patrick Bykowski in relief.

The three pitchers combined to allow seven hits, 12 walks and hit two batters. Franc cruised through three scoreless innings, but Neumann-Goretti’s first three runs scored on bases-loaded walks — one by Franc and two by Hanny.

“Carson Franc, hats off to him,” Bywalski said. “He gave us everything he could. Extremely proud. Jacob Hanny, Patrick Bykowski, I’m just very proud of those guys.

“Yeah, we were banged up.”

It didn’t help that Neumann-Goretti had the Philadelphia Catholic League Pitcher of the Year on the mound. Senior right-hander Jayce Park, an Old Dominion recruit, pitched a one-hitter with eight strikeouts and one walk.

Park improved to 8-1 on the season with a 1.18 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 65⅓ innings.

“That’s what you get every time. It’s incredible,” Nardini said. “The kid has given us innings since he was a freshman. … In big games like this, it’s just like, ‘Here you go, bud. Take us. Lead us.’ And he does that every time out.”

Park’s only jam came in the fourth inning, when sophomore Jake Dolan hit a leadoff single and sophomore Hunter Blackson drew a one-out walk. Both sprinted home on Scharding’s bouncer to shortstop, sparking a celebration in the Avonworth dugout and in the stands behind it.

“The umpire said he didn’t drop the baseball and said he possessed it,” Bywalski said. “We all saw it.”

Neumann-Goretti combined three hits, four walks and a hit batter to score seven runs later in the fourth. The Saints sent 11 batters to the plate. After three bases-loaded walks, Neumann-Goretti’s Evan McCoach hit a three-run double and Christian Cerone followed with an RBI single.

The loss ended a remarkable postseason run that saw Avonworth win a WPIAL title as the No. 7 seed.

“Here’s the good thing: I lose three seniors who actually played in the field,” Bywalski said. “I’ve got my catcher coming back, my right fielder, four sophomores who started today. Our future is bright. We’re going to be back here someday.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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