Hempfield baseball survives up-and-down inning, stops Central Catholic

Saturday, May 22, 2021 | 9:05 PM

No matter how far this playoff runs goes, Hempfield will remember that nerve-racking yet fun-filled fifth inning from the quarterfinals when the Spartans turned a negative into a positive.

The third-seeded Spartans went from an unsavory performance in the top of the frame to reversing course and taking control in the bottom half to post a 6-4 victory over No. 6 Central Catholic in the WPIAL Class 6A quarterfinals Saturday at West Mifflin.

Just like that, Hempfield (14-7) is headed back to the semifinals for the second time in four years and will face local rival and section foe Norwin (14-3) at 4 p.m. Monday at Fox Chapel.

Hempfield and Norwin split the Section 2 title and their season series. The semifinal will break the tie.

Senior Christian Zilli went 2 for 3 with three RBIs, and sophomore Gage Wheaton hit a three-run home run for the Spartans, who rallied from a 3-1 deficit.

“We knew this wasn’t going to be an easy game,” Hempfield coach Tim Buzzard said. “We know how good the teams from the north are. Central has a lot of talent. Our kids fought and battled, just like they have all year.”

Spartans ace Phil Fox was cruising early, allowing one hit through four innings while holding close to the vest a 1-0 lead thanks to a run-scoring single from Zilli. But the Vikings (10-9) finally got to him in the fifth as senior Joe Pilewski led off with a double, and Bryce Hunt followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 1-1.

That’s when things started to spiral the wrong way for the Spartans.

The next two batters walked, Fox was called for a balk and he hit a batter to load the bases. Junior Brendan Koroly then cracked a two-run double to right that just clipped the top of first baseman Michael Hosni’s glove to give the Vikings a 3-1 lead.

Fox got out of it without any further damage when the Vikings left the bases loaded.

“Phil came out so dominant and locked in,” Buzzard said. “He was in command. In a playoff game, so much can happen physically and mentally. It can be exhausting and take a lot of adrenaline. We battled and got through it.”

They did, with a big answer. Junior Jayson Jacob singled to center, and Fox was hit by a pitch. Zilli then lasered a double off the fence in left-center to tie it 3-3.

“We trusted each other,” Zilli said. “We have played so well together this year. We know when we get down, it’s not going to be for long. We’re a really resilient group, and we showed that today.”

After junior Aidan Dunlap walked, Wheaton connected for his first high school home run, a pulled shot to left, to put the Spartans back in front 6-3.

“I was thinking first-pitch fastball because I was late in my first two at-bats,” Wheaton said. “I got it up and in and pulled it.”

Sophomore Austyn Winkleblech pitched effectively for Central, working five innings before he was replaced by sophomore Antonio Cordeiro. The Vikings’ potential top two pitchers, seniors Brett Palmer and Pete Tadich, suffered season-ending injuries early in the year so the staff has had to grow up quickly.

“We didn’t make the plays,” Central Catholic coach Pat Walsh said. “We should have had that third out (in the fifth). The next batter hit a home run. Hempfield is a great team, and I am not taking away what they did, but we gave them some help.”

Central out-hit Hempfield, 6-5. Koroly went 2 for 3 and Pilewski 2 for 4.

Fox pitched five innings and earned the win. Zilli worked the final two, with Central loading the bases in the seventh before a scary pop out finally was pulled in by junior Ryan Firmstone.

Senior Lucas Anderson did not play for Hempfield. The catcher has an injury, so Buzzard started freshman Carson Shuglie.

The coach said Anderson could be available Monday.

The Spartans are anxious to see Norwin again.

“We were there my freshman year, and I can tell you it was one of the most exciting games I have played in my sports career,” Zilli said of the semis. “We got Norwin on Monday, and it’s going to be a really exciting game. I am really looking forward to it.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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