Deer Lakes baseball ‘learning how to win’ in turnaround

Monday, April 22, 2019 | 6:20 PM

The same result kept happening to Deer Lakes during the early stages of baseball season.

A one-run loss to Reading’s Berks Catholic in a season-opening tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Another against Knoch, in walkoff fashion, in the Lancers’ first game back in Pennsylvania. Still another in their next game, this time to Fox Chapel. Two games later, a 2-0 loss to Highlands.

At some point, as coach Josh Tysk put it, “we (were) getting tired of losing by one.”

Deer Lakes flipped the close-game script soon after as the Lancers, ranked No. 2 in WPIAL Class 3A, found a way to turn those tight defeats into narrow victories. In three of its past four Section 1-3A games, Deer Lakes (8-5, 6-0) either prevailed in a close game, came from behind or both to seize control of the section with the second half of the season ready to begin.

“I think that we’re learning how to win,” Tysk said. “We’re learning what it takes at the end of games: never quitting, making one big play and putting one ball in play that can turn the tides of the game. I think we learned that quickly.”

First Deer Lakes needed to learn how to play together. After graduating its top three hitters and three of its top pitchers — including two, Jake McCaskey and Tyler Smith, who filled both roles — the Lancers came into 2019 with significant holes to fill on the roster.

A mixture of young players and veterans are doing that.

“I think the team’s just putting their heart into what they’re doing,” senior Cory Newman said. “Everyone’s hitting the ball, fielding (their) position. If they make an error, guys are picking each other up.”

Deer Lakes began the season at Myrtle Beach, giving the Lancers a chance to not only play four games under better weather conditions but also bond. That experience is helping, Newman said.

“You just get a really good bonding experience and start to see what the team is going to be like, what guys are going to do and where they’re going to play,” Newman said. “It was very valuable. We had players that we didn’t know if they were going to play, if they were going to play that position, this position.”

The Lancers believe their closer relationship makes a difference in the close games now.

A six-run sixth inning helped Deer Lakes turn a two-run deficit against Burrell into a victory April 10. The next afternoon, the Lancers scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat Steel Valley, 3-2. Last week, they edged Freeport, 2-1, behind a strong pitching effort by Will Meyer and Justin Brannagan and some timely hitting.

“Our team chemistry, it’s hard for us to say that we don’t have it. It’s there,” said Brannagan, a freshman. “When we’re down, we bring it to them. We know that we have to. Even if we’re down late in the game, we know we can bring it back.”

Tysk said the team hit well in Myrtle Beach, and the Lancers remembered to pack their bats when they returned to Western Pennsylvania. Deer Lakes has a .293 team batting average, led by seniors such as Josh Probst, Greg Geis and Newman, plus Brannagan.

Geis, a starting pitcher the last two seasons, stepped into the ace role left vacant by the graduations of Zach Lubick (2017) and McCaskey (2018). The left-hander has a 4-0 record, 2.56 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 2713 innings. Brannagan and Meyer, a junior, are eating valuable innings, and the fielding also has been strong, Tysk said.

“Everybody’s come through in different spots,” Tysk said. “It hasn’t been just one guy, and that’s a big thing. … Everybody’s contributing, from freshmen and sophomores to seniors. A different group of guys is contributing every single day, and that’s playing for one another and that’s playing as a team.”

The Lancers will need more of that down the stretch if they want to win their first section title since 2013 — they stand two games clear of the three teams tied for second place, Burrell, Freeport and Steel Valley — and make a run deep into the postseason.

If past results indicate anything, Deer Lakes can expect more close games in the postseason. The Lancers’ playoff trips in 2017 and ’18 ended with 1-0 losses.

“We’re confident that if we can keep other teams low-scoring, we’re going to find a way to score two, three or four runs and win the baseball game,” Tysk said. “We’re not going to quit. That’s our team goal at practice: never quit, never give up. We’ll see how the second half goes.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, or via Twitter .


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