Scrappy Penn-Trafford holds off Franklin Regional for share of section title

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Tuesday, May 9, 2023 | 8:31 PM


After going 3 for 3 with four RBIs, first baseman Chuck Fontana III had one more hit lined up Tuesday.

As his teammates gathered in left field to celebrate a nerve-racking victory, the Penn-Trafford junior ducked into the dugout and swiped the water cooler.

He carried it quietly to the group huddle, approached cautiously, and surprised coach Lou Cortazzo with a rolling splash of ice-cold liquid down his back.

“It was blue Gatorade, too, but it still felt pretty good,” Cortazzo said after his team escaped with a 10-9 victory over visiting Franklin Regional in the Section 1-5A finale.

The Warriors (13-4, 9-3) capped an improbable run to a co-section championship by sweeping the Panthers (12-7, 6-6), who were eliminated and saw their seven-year playoff streak end.

Penn-Trafford finished tied with Plum (12-7, 9-3) for the top spot. The playoff seedings and pairings come out Friday.

Franklin Regional, which rallied from a 10-4 deficit with a five-run sixth inning, had not missed the playoffs since 2014.

Penn-Trafford, which already had secured its seventh straight postseason trip, earned its first section title since 2019 as Fontana hit his first home run of the season and squeezed in another run with a bunt, and senior Dylan Grabowski pitched 5 2/3 strong innings, doubled and drove in three runs.

“It was an ugly game, and we have been playing like that for a few weeks,” said Cortazzo, who took over the team in an interim role this season. “But no matter what, we’re never out of a game. This win took grit.”

The Warriors, beset with injuries to key players Jakob Haynes, Jake Otto, Jason Sabol and Brady Lane, have managed to win four straight and eight of nine.

“We just keep fighting,” Fontana said. “You can never count us out. Guys have stepped up. (Brody) Hoffman, (Brayden) Stone, (Ian) Temple.”

Anyone who counted Franklin Regional out was feeling foolish in the sixth. Anyone who left early nearly missed a season-saving comeback.

“When we were up 10-4, I told our kids, these guys are going to keep fighting and the game wasn’t over,” Cortazzo said. “We just kept answering the bell.”

Senior Peyton Bigler came on in the sixth with the Warriors up 10-6. Franklin Regional scored five times after there were two outs, with Josh Hudak tucking a gently hit shot to left just inside the foul pole for a three-run homer to cut it to 10-9.

But the rally was not meant to be.

After the Warriors came up empty in the seventh, Bigler welcomed two big putouts from junior center fielder Carmen Metcalfe, who made a diving snag to rob senior Daniel Luko of extra bases.

Luko hit a grand slam in the third to put the Panthers up 4-2, their only lead.

Bigler, who earned a save, struck out Panthers freshman Luke Williams, a Virginia commit, to end it.

“Every single game, our guys left it all out there,” said Panthers coach Bobby Saddler, who has only missed the playoffs three times in his 12 seasons. “Our guys are always fighting, giving great effort and showing resiliency. They did everything they were asked to do.

“This group has outstanding talent, so it hurts (to not move on). I didn’t do enough, so it’s partly on me and I own that.”

The Warriors, who scored in every inning except the sixth, went ahead 6-4 with a three-run fourth.

With Hudak in relief of starter Blake Bertucci, the Warriors loaded the bases.

Grabowski singled in a run to make it 4-4, before a fielder’s choice and squeeze bunt by Fontana gave the Warriors a 6-4 advantage.

Junior Ian Temple and Grabowski — the starting battery — each doubled in the fifth, with Grabowski’s knocking in two for an 8-4 lead.

Fontana singled in another run, and Metcalfe delivered a sacrifice fly to make it 10-4.

“Chuck has really worked on his two-strike approach,” Cortazzo said. “He really was taking too many pitches.”

The Panthers’ two-out rally had the Warriors on their heels.

A fielder’s choice and RBI single by junior Cole Brinker for the Panthers trimmed the margin to 10-6, before Hudak’s three-run shot off of Bigler.

“We gave a lot of mistakes to them and they kept punching back,” Cortazzo said. “That is never a good thing. Franklin Regional is good team and we knew it would be another dogfight with them.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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