Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Brandon Ritchie proved to be Neshannock’s worst nightmare yesterday.
Whether Ritchie was coming at them from the mound or at the plate, there simply was no escaping it for the Lancers.
The senior tossed a complete-game shutout, lifting the Laurel High baseball team to a 7-0 WPIAL Section 5-AA win over Neshannock at the Leonard Rich Athletic Complex. The win propels the Spartans (9-4 section, 9-6 overall) into the WPIAL playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Ritchie was 2 for 3 plus a walk with three RBIs, including a two-run homer in the first inning, his third of the season.
“He came out and got a good 1-2-3 inning in the first and a low pitch count,” Laurel coach Eric Verdi said. “He was finding his spots and he was going to have a good day.
“For him to have that type of day at the plate, getting us up 2-0 early, I couldn’t be any prouder of our leader. And he is our leader. We go where he goes. He did it all for us. The boys chipped in great defensively to help him.”
“We’re excited to be going to the playoffs,” Verdi said. “We weren’t sure what we had or what we were going to do on the field. We knew we had some horses to go behind and we had to find some players.
“We found guys that played hard for us. They battled. We’re excite to be back. We didn’t want our streak to end.”
The postseason streak came to an end, though, for the Lancers (8-6, 11-6) with the loss. Neshannock, which captured the last two WPIAL Class A titles before climbing to double-A, last missed the WPIAL playoffs in 2006.
“We know in this section, if you come out of this section, I don’t care if you finish first or third, you have a shot at winning a WPIAL title,” Lancers coach Mike Kirkwood said. “Beaver was one of the top teams throughout the year and we beat them twice. Now, here we are, sitting out of the playoffs.
“I told the kids, we kind of made our bed and we have to lay in it. We lost to some teams that maybe we weren’t totally focused to play. From a coaching standpoint, a player’s standpoint. Whatever the case may be. It bit us and made this (Laurel) game meaningful.”
Ritchie (5-1) scattered five hits, walking one and striking out 10. He put an exclamation point on the performance by striking out the final two Neshannock batters of the contest.
“Everything was working for me. My mechanics felt good,” Ritchie said. “I had all five pitches going for me and I just threw them all for strikes; it worked out good.”
Ritchie set the Lancers down in order in the first and he didn’t waste any time staking his squad to an early lead. Ray Scala led off the bottom of the first with a double. Josh Dando flew out and Ritchie strolled to the plate.
A George Washington University recruit, Ritchie belted a 1-1 offering from Alex Welker over the fence in center to give Laurel a 2-0 lead.
“I think it was something offspeed, I wasn’t sure,” Ritchie said of the pitch. “With Alex, he throws hard. You just have to hit to contact. I’m just thankful he threw that hard because I don’t think it would have carried if he didn’t.
“I thought the center fielder was going to catch it. I thought it hung up there too high. But this field is like a wind tunnel.”
Ritchie pushed the Spartans’ lead to 3-0 in the third with a run-producing double, plating Scala who walked.
Said Ritchie of his batting, “I was just seeing the ball well today.”
Laurel put the game away in the fifth inning, knocking out Welker in the process. The Spartans tallied three markers for a 6-0 lead.
“Neshannock is such a scary team,” Ritchie said. “They can come back whether you have six runs or nine runs. It felt good to score more, but you still can’t be too sure.”
Said Verdi of the insurance, “We were trying everything we possibly could to try to get another run. That’s a great team we were playing.”
Welker (4-3), a senior, tossed four-plus innings, allowing five hits and six runs — five earned — with six walks and four strikeouts.
“Our biggest thing is we have to pitch to location,” Kirkwood said. “It was a couple of spots here and there. Overall, he’s been great for us for a number of years and I tip my hat to him.”
The Lancers’ best chance to score was in the sixth when they had runners at second and third with two outs. But Matt Cioffi struck out to end the threat.
“You need baserunners,” Kirkwood said. “We couldn’t get anything started. It was just one of those days.”
Laurel struggled throughout the early part of the year defensively. But the Spartans have turned that around as the playoffs approach.
“We’ve been improving the last two weeks defensively,” Verdi said. “We’ve had confidence and winning helps with that.
“I think the kids are confident. They’re learning. They’re getting mature. We have a young team and we’re growing as a team together.”
The WPIAL will announce the playoff pairings Friday.