Bethel Park baseball checked all boxes en route to a state championship

Sunday, June 27, 2021 | 11:01 AM

The foundation of a state championship high school baseball team is an outstanding pitching corps, paced by a strong one-two punch.

The club also needs solid, clutch hitting.

Defensively, it must be steady.

All are facets coordinated by a dedicated coaching staff.

Bethel Park’s baseball squad successfully checked off all the boxes in winning its second PIAA title in school history.

The Black Hawks defeated Red Land, 4-2, in the Class 5A state final June 17 at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park on the Penn State campus.

“Words still cannot express the pride I feel for this special group of young men,” coach Pat Zehnder said. “They worked so hard during practices and games and battled through so many tough situations to accomplish our ultimate goal.

“We used pretty much the same formula that led us through the rest of the playoffs in the victory versus Red Land: Great pitching, good defense and the hitting doing enough to put us over the top. Red Land is extremely well-rounded and well-coached, and we knew we were in for a great test.”

Bethel Park finished with a dazzling 22-4 record after going 4-0 in the PIAA tournament and 7-1 in the postseason.

The Black Hawks started out 4-0 this spring and later reeled off a 10-game winning streak, taking the Section 4 crown with a 10-0 mark.

Bethel Park, as the WPIAL runner-up, defeated District 3 runner-up Northern York, 5-1; District 11 champion Southern Lehigh, 7-2; and District 6 champion Central Mountain, 1-0 in nine innings, to reach the state finals.

“Our pitching and defense was outstanding all playoffs long,” Zehnder said. “Throughout the eight playoff games, our defense allowed no more than two runs in any game. There is no doubt that is why we were able to go on this run. Credit to our pitching coach, Kyle Nicholson, and our pitching staff for keeping us in every game.

“Our offense didn’t put up as big of numbers that they did in the regular season, but we faced eight straight playoff teams’ aces, so that obviously makes things more difficult. We still were able to find a way to scratch enough runs across to win games.

“This team was so mentally tough and continued to find different ways to win games by coming from behind, scratching across the only run scored during the game, walking it off, (experiencing) rain delays and extra innings, and maintaining an early lead. The experience we gained from so many close games and clutch situations helped provide us confidence in those moments in the final.”

Red Land (25-5) took a 13-game winning streak into the championship game.

The Patriots, from Lewisburry and with two potential MLB Draft picks in the lineup — Virginia recruit Benny Montgomery (OF) and Georgia recruit Cole Wagner (1B/DH) — were the defending state champions in 5A thanks to an 8-3 win against Lampeter-Strasburg in 2019.

This was Bethel Park’s fifth appearance in the state finals in baseball. The Black Hawks won the PIAA Class 3A title in 1988 and finished second in 1985, ’87 and ’03.

Senior Eric Chalus, a 6-foot-1 left-handed hurler bound for Kent State, finished with a perfect 11-0 record.

“We played a really good baseball team in the state championship at Penn State,” Chalus said. “It was action-packed and went down to the wire. The whole team contributed in some way to help win the trophy.

“The atmosphere displayed in that park was insane. It was so loud, and the loudest were the Red Land fans. Their student section was yelling at me along with my teammates, trying to get us off our game. That fueled us more than anything. They helped us out.

“It was just a surreal moment in my life along with the baseball program. We talked about winning states all the way back in February. It was a dream come true to bring back a championship trophy to the high school. The final play continues to play in my head.”

One of the WPIAL’s top hurlers, Chalus threw 107 pitches over six innings against Red Land, allowing two runs on seven hits while striking out six and issuing two walks.

“Eric battled against one of the most-talented lineups in the state,” Zehnder said, “and again held a team below its offensive standard by pounding the zone and keeping hitters off balance. I can’t express enough how great it was for Eric to finish his high school career winning the state championship after being this team’s horse for four years.”

Chalus escaped scoring threats in the fifth and sixth innings, as did Bethel Park closer Cody Geddes in the top of the seventh.

The Patriots had runners on second and third with no outs in the last inning. Geddes, a junior right-hander who moved over from his third base position on defense, shut down the next three batters to clinch the title.

“I will never forget the feeling that came over me when that final out was made,” said Zehnder, who was assisted by Nicholson and Joe Ranalli. “Then it clicked to the team how much this run meant to the community. We were escorted back into Bethel Park by an armada of first responders’ vehicles, with sirens blaring.

“When we finally got back to the high school, there was a large group of people there to greet the team that cheered as players got off the bus with the trophy. The look on the players’ faces as they saw the huge group waiting to celebrate is another thing I won’t forget.”

Geddes clouted a two-run triple in the first inning. Senior first baseman Zack Sackett and junior shortstop David Kessler added RBIs to make it 4-0 at the end of two.

Kessler was the Black Hawks’ leading hitter in 2021 with a .458 batting average, .653 slugging percentage, 29 RBIs, 27 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.

“It was unbelievable, the celebration after the final out,” Kessler said. “I was thinking to myself, in awe, ‘I can’t believe we just did this.’ After jumping around and celebrating, I was scared to check my phone because I knew it was blowing up already.

“Another great thing was about 25 or 30 minutes out from getting back to the high school, a good family friend of ours, Mr. (Jules) Caye, just so happens to be a sheriff and he gave us a police escort home. When we got closer to the Galleria, there were fire trucks waiting to tag along. Once we got back to the high school, we were greeted by the community as we got off the bus.

“I stayed at the high school for about two more hours celebrating with friends. It was an amazing time from the final out all the way to when I went to bed. I will never forget this in my lifetime.”

Bethel Park batted .312 as a team this season and outscored the opposition 159-59, averaging 6.1 runs per game.

Chalus hit .400 with 23 RBIs, while the team’s .300 hitters included Geddes (.353), senior OF Shane Hamel (.333), Sackett (.310), junior 2B Bo Conrad (.300) and junior OF Ben Hudson (.300). Sophomores John Chalus (C), Ray Altmeyer (DH/OF) and Jason Nuttridge (OF) chipped in with .296, .281 and .267 averages, respectively.

The versatile Sackett started at first base against Red Land. He also is a catcher and outfielder .

“Winning the championship will be something I never forget,” Sackett said. “We went through a lot of adversity just trying to get there.”

Along with Eric Chalus and junior righty Evan Holewinski, sophomore Nathan Vargo (2), Geddes and seniors Dan DelBene (1) and Josh Peters (1) chalked up wins this season.

Sophomores Evan LeJeune, Sebastian Schein and Colby Goelz, senior Jimmy Gasper and junior Will Sokira rounded out the BP pitching corps.

Other squad members included seniors Larry Kusan (OF) and Sawyer D’Andrea (C/INF) and junior Dylan Schmude (OF).

Bethel Park’s pitching staff posted a composite 1.62 ERA with 10 shutouts, gave up just 41 earned runs and fanned 186 batters in 177.2 innings.

Zehnder made note of some of the key components of a state championship baseball squad.

“First of all, the players have to support each other,” Zehnder said. “There are so many tough situations and failures in baseball, so the players need to feel supported by one another. They have to be mentally tough. How you handle failure and the tough situations determine how consistently you can maintain success.

“You need to have great pitching. There is no way to progress through the schedule of the WPIAL and state playoffs with one pitcher. You need at least three or four great arms to get you through close and intense games. Great defense and timely hitting would be the other pieces to that puzzle.”

And a little luck also helps out.

“You sometimes need a bounce to go your way in certain moments,” Zehnder said. “There are a lot of great teams that do all the right things and sometimes things just still don’t work out for whatever reason.

“We are appreciative of how hard it is to accomplish this feat, and I am so proud of this great group of young men.”


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