Avonworth reaches 1st PIAA championship game after fast start in state semifinal

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Monday, June 10, 2024 | 10:55 PM


HOMER CITY — Extra-inning wins had become Avonworth’s specialty in these playoffs, but the Antelopes weren’t waiting around this time.

Leadoff batter Brandon Sapolsky drove the game’s first pitch to the fence for a double, keying a three-run inning as Avonworth took an early lead in a 5-3 win over Punxsutawney in a PIAA Class 3A semifinal Monday.

The WPIAL champions saw three of their first six playoff games go to extra innings, but this time they never trailed.

“As the leadoff hitter, I knew to set the tone early, especially as the away team,” said Sapolsky, who decided in the dugout to swing hard at the first pitch, guessing it would be a fastball. “To get three runs in the first inning goes a long way. It silences them and puts them in the ground.”

It put the Antelopes somewhere they’ve never been: the state finals.

Avonworth plays District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti (20-6) of the Philadelphia Catholic League at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Penn State. Avonworth (18-9) was runner-up in its own section and drew a No. 7 seed for the WPIAL playoffs, which makes this run to the state finals all the more remarkable.

“They just keep going,” second-year coach Jeff Bywalski said. “We’re playing free baseball right now. All of the pressure is on everybody else because everybody is saying, ‘This team is No. 1 or this team is No. 1.’ Nothing about Avonworth. Fine. We’re just going to keep playing our baseball and see where it takes us.

“Guess what? It’s taking us to Penn State.”

Punxsutawney (17-4) was the District 9 champion.

Avonworth scored three runs in the first inning and later led 5-1 after adding two more in the seventh. Punxsutawney tried to rally with three hits and two runs in the bottom of the seventh, but Avonworth pitcher Jacob Hanny forced a game-ending flyout that stranded two runners.

Alex Rowe’s catch in right field sparked a celebration for the Antelopes.

“It’s the first time in school history,” Hanny said of reaching the state finals. “We were the first team to win the WPIAL since 1992. Now to make it all the way to the state championship, it’s a great feeling as a team.”

Arm soreness forced Avonworth starter Cooper Scharding off the mound in the third inning with a 3-0 lead. He was relieved by Hanny, who let one inherited runner score before shutting down Punxsutawney with scoreless innings in the fourth, fifth and sixth.

Hanny allowed two runs on five hits with three strikeouts, one hit batter and no walks in 4⅓ innings.

The right-hander missed the team’s state quarterfinal win for a college orientation, which Bywalski said led to a team discussion about his absence. But Bywalski also noted how Hanny’s teammates were adamant they wanted him back.

“He came back and gave everything he could to his team,” Bywalski said. “And he helped put his team in the state championship. I can’t say enough about his performance today.”

Scharding allowed one hit, walked three and struck out two in 2⅓ innings. He finished the day playing second base.

“Cooper’s arm got a little sore,” Bywalski said. “He’s only a sophomore, so we had to shut him down. It’s OK. We knew we had other guys who were going to perform for us.”

Punxsutawney starter Parker Stahlman pitched six inning and allowed three runs on six hits. The left-hander walked none, hit one batter and struck out six.

Avonworth sent eight batters to the plate in the first inning. After Sapolsky’s leadoff double, Hunter Blackson was hit by a pitch with two outs. Metz and Scharding followed with RBI singles for a 3-0 lead.

Punxsutawney scored a run in the third on a wild pitch by Hanny.

In the seventh, Avonworth extended its lead to 5-1 with a hit, two walks, a hit batter and a fielding error by Punxsutawney. Sapolsky singled and later scored on a wild pitch. Jack Dolan walked and scored on a bases-loaded hit by pitch.

“We talk about that all the time, trying to get off to a fast start,” Bywalski said. “We need runs right away. Today we did.”

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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