BUTLER — All season long, the New Castle High baseball team had a flare for drama.
If it wasn't the team holding on for narrow, one-run victories, it was knocking off the No. 1-seed in the WPIAL playoffs or, like in Monday's case, getting a force out to seal the program's first state-playoff victory. In a rubber match against Section 2-4A rival Beaver, there were dramatics, but all told it was the Bobcats (16-7) coming away with a 10-2 victory in a PIAA Class 4A quarterfinal game and closing the curtains on a historic Red Hurricane season Thursday at Pullman Park.
New Castle (12-11) started the game hot right out of the gate. After starting pitcher Vince Soukovich worked a hitless top-half of the first inning, Nic Morell and Matt Senchak reached on singles and came around to score to give the 'Canes a quick 2-0 lead. That score stood until the top of the third when things got interesting.
After Soukovich struck out Beaver's Brady Hansen, leadoff hitter Harrison Pontoli came to the plate, singled, then moved to second base when Soukovich was called for a balk. Beaver's Jack Yanssens, Vinny Mastrangelo and Alec Berg drew consecutive walks, scoring Pontoli from third to cut into New Castle's lead at 2-1.
Charlie Zorich, running for Yanssens, darted down the baseline from third base. Soukovich appeared to step off the pitching rubber and fire home to catcher Brayden Cartwright for what would have been the inning's second out. Instead, Soukovich was called for another balk, moving up the runners at all three bases and allowing Zorich to score and tie the game.
"Vince did exactly what we taught him," 'Canes coach Bill Cook said.
That sequence set off Cook, who came onto the field to appeal the call. Cook eventually was ejected from the game in what turned into a heated exchange on the infield.
“The kid was out, but unfortunately they called a balk in the situation," Cook said last night by telephone. "What happened with me, I wasn’t even mad at that point. I called timeout and said I'd like to talk to the umpire. The home plate umpire gave me permission.”
Cook then continued his appeal to the second base umpire, who made the original balk call. Cook and the umpire had an exchange, but the coach said the noise in the stadium affected his ability to hear the umpire's response. Cook then tried to demonstrate to the umpire what Soukovich did. That's when the umpire ejected the first-year 'Canes skipper.
“I'm not sure if he thought I was trying to show him up," Cook said, "but that’s not what my intention was."
Cook said he continued asking why the balk call was made.
"His response to me was, 'It doesn't matter, you're gone' and turned his back,'" Cook said. "It's nothing I'm proud of, but it happened."
Soukovich recovered, striking out three straight to preserve the tie as assistant coach Erik Montozzi was then thrust into acting head coach duties after Cook was required to leave the facility. Cook initially went outside the outfield fence before climbing on top of the team bus in center field with his young son to watch the rest of the game.
"When that happened," Montozzi said, "it was a big-time focus (for New Castle) and just honing in and realizing that they have to go out there and step it up for their head coach and that’s what they did the whole entire time no matter what the ending was.”
Matt Senchak came on in relief of Soukovich in the fourth and worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam to keep the game knotted at 2-2.
“Once I had to look at the situation," Montozzi said, "looking at pitch count and stuff and not being able to look into the future but looking at it where let’s switch some things up. Let’s save Vince where if we’re close at the end or we take the lead, I can bring him back in and try to have him close it back out and have things settled down. So that’s what we went with.”
New Castle threatened to take back the lead in the fourth with runners on the corners, but Rocco Bernadina — who threw a shutout in Monday's state-playoff win against Warren — flew out to center. Beaver added two runs each in the fifth and sixth before scoring four in the seventh to break the game open and take a 10-2 lead, which held as the final score.
Beaver limited the 'Canes to just seven singles with Morell, Senchak, Jake Grippo, Brayden Cartwright, Logan Gibson, Bernadina and Bernie Fabian each collecting one. Soukovich, Senchak and Dante Micaletti combined to allow the 10 runs on 15 hits while striking out seven and walking seven. Yanssens earned the victory, pitching six innings and allowing no earned runs. Mason Rose pitched a scoreless seventh inning.
“We put the ball in play," Montozzi said. "We had baserunners. We didn’t capitalize, but that’s part of the game and that’s why we come out and play seven innings. If we come out and only play three innings, then this game would be a lot different."
Montozzi said New Castle kept playing hard in part because the close-knit bunch wanted to compete for its coach.
"I can’t say enough about how our team, our coaching staff, coach Cook," Montozzi said. "With the scenario that went down, it kind of caught me off-guard. That’s kind of how we are as a team, though. If somebody goes down or somebody needs help, somebody steps up. That’s what we’ve done.”
Cook was able to meet with his team last night to send off his seniors and recap the season.
"I just told them I’m very proud of them," Cook said. "To support me the way they did, to understand my philosophy of the game and buy into it means everything to me."
Beaver advances to play District 3 champion East Pennsboro in the state semifinals Monday at a site and time to be determined.