Unlikely hero pitches unsinkable Avonworth to another extra-innings win

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Thursday, June 6, 2024 | 7:34 PM


Carson Franc kept working on his pitches and believing his time on the mound could come, despite having thrown very few innings all season.

The Avonworth sophomore turned out to be right, he was ready and his Antelopes are headed to the state semifinals after grinding out another extra-innings win. Franc pitched 6⅔ scoreless innings in relief Thursday as Avonworth outlasted Fairview, 5-4, in nine innings for a PIAA Class 3A quarterfinal win at Slippery Rock.

“I knew if I got a chance I would show them what I could do,” said Franc, the team’s usual first baseman. “All of my work during the season — late nights and early mornings — it just paid off today.”

Franc allowed only two hits while more than doubling his total innings. The right-hander silenced the District 10 champion long enough for fellow sophomore Jack Dolan to come through with a ninth-inning single that scored Brandon Sapolsky for the go-ahead run.

“Carson Franc showed us that he can throw the ball,” Avonworth coach Jeff Bywalski said. “We all had belief in him. We knew he could get something done for us and he did. It was awesome.”

The win in extra innings was the third in this postseason for Avonworth (17-9), which advanced to play Punxsutawney on Monday. The Antelopes had two extra-inning wins in the WPIAL playoffs, over Burrell, 2-1, in an eight-inning semifinal and Riverside, 4-3, in a 14-inning final.

“This group here is special,” Bywalski said. “They’re gritty. They keep battling. They bought in all year and their season is still going.”

Sapolsky, a senior and the leadoff batter, scored three times. Junior catcher Mason Metz had two RBIs.

Fairview (17-4) lost in the PIAA quarterfinals to Riverside last year and to Martinsburg Central in 2022. Both of those teams went on to win the state championship.

“These guys could go all the way,” Fairview coach Joe Spinelli said of Avonworth. “We got to (starter Aidan Tinker) today, but we couldn’t hit the guy they put in. Franc was great. We didn’t generate offense. That was the story of the game. He shut us down.”

Avonworth entered Thursday facing somewhat of a pitching dilemma. Bywalski said Tinker was dealing with an arm issue while another top pitcher missed the game for a college orientation.

Tinker started and pitched into the third inning before handing the ball to Franc, who took the mound with one out and two runners on base. He escaped that jam by striking out the first two batters he faced.

Fairview managed only two singles against Franc, who struck out eight and walked two.

Franc had pitched only 5⅓ innings before Thursday. Most of his previous work — five innings — came during two March games in South Carolina. He also recorded one out in a nonsection game vs. Bethel Park in April.

Bywalski pitched Franc in a scrimmage against Pine-Richland prior to the playoffs, but he wasn’t expected to be a big part of the team’s postseason pitching plans. He found success against Fairview by mixing two- and four-seam fastballs.

“My four-seam was getting on the outside corner and my two-seam was running in on them,” he said. “So they didn’t really know which one I was going to throw.”

Avonworth took a 3-0 lead with one run in the first inning and two in the second. Sapolsky reached base and scored in each inning. Alex Rowe also scored.

Metz had an RBI single in the first inning. Avonworth’s two runs in the second were scored on a Fairview error.

Fairview took a 4-3 lead with one run in the bottom of the second and three more in the third to chase Tinker, who allowed four hits, one walk and hit a batter in 2⅓ innings. Tinker was also hindered by three Avonworth fielding errors in the first three innings.

“We didn’t know how much Aidan Tinker was going to give us,” Bywalski said. “He wanted to try it out, so we let him go. Hats off to him. He wanted to get out there and try to do something for his buddies and he gave us enough.”

Fairview used four pitchers with starter Patrick Stafford lasting 1⅔ innings.

In the fifth, Avonworth forced a 4-4 tie when senior Hunter Blackson hit a leadoff single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on a single by Metz.

The teams went scoreless in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings before Avonworth broke through with a go-ahead run in the ninth. Sapolsky drew a leadoff walk and advanced two bases on a wild pitch that appeared to hit the umpire in the mask.

With Sapolsky on third and no outs, Dolan lined a tie-breaking single to right for a 5-4 lead.

“It’s pretty indescribable,” Dolan said. “This wasn’t in the bottom of the inning, but you pretty much know you just won it for your team.”

It was the second time this season that Dolan was the hero in extra innings. He also had the winning hit in the walk-off win over Burrell in the WPIAL semifinals.

Franc stranded two Fairview runners in the bottom of the ninth with a game-ending popup to the catcher.

“They keep going no matter what,” Bywalski said. “We had the lead, we lost the lead. We tied it, stayed in it. Any adversity, they just keep battling and keep playing. That’s what’s great about them.”

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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