BY JEFF FALK
EPHRATA – Their collective body language spoke volumes.
The Northern Lebanon baseball team entered the fray excited about the opportunity. But as the game wore on – with each passing inning and every subsequent pitch – the Vikings became more and more emotionally deflated.
On Saturday morning at Ephrata’s War Memorial Field, the Vikings battled – as head coach Daryl Hess is fond of saying – mighty Hempfield before ultimately succumbing 8-0 in the opening round of the Lancaster-Lebanon League playoffs. Northern Lebanon was especially competitive early, or at least before the Black Knights hit it with consecutive rallies in the fourth and fifth innings.
And Northern Lebanon never really solved Hempfield starter Dereck Totaro, who surrendered but one flare of a hit.
The loss knocked the Vikings, the runners-up from Section Three, down to 14-7 overall. Northern Lebanon will take a week off before opening the District Three Class AAA postseason as the number 10 seed.
Hempfield, the winner of Section One, improved to 18-3 on the season.
“You have to play well against a good team,” said Hess. “I tried to stress to the kids to take care of ourselves first. Lots of times that’s the key. You’ve got to play well. We were trying to play the best we could.
“As a coach, you always like to see a team take a loss hard,” Hess continued. “I told them, ‘You’ve got to keep your heads up.’ We’ve got to think about this and what we could’ve done better. There’s still some baseball left to be played.”
“Coiming in, we knew that whoever wins the section Cedar Crest is in has got to be a good team,” said Viking senior shortstop John McKinney. “Our coach gave us a scouting report on their pitcher and hitters. But ultimately we had to execute, and it wasn’t our day.”
Perhaps Northern Lebanon’s best shot to get to Totaro came in the bottom of the first, when it used Drew Bene’s safety and an error to get two runners on with one out. But Totaro got out of it with a strikeout and a fly ball.
After that, Totaro faced the minimum number of hitters before exiting after the sixth. He fanned six and didn’t walk a batter.
“He settled down,” said Hess of Totaro. “He threw that change-up that dropped down and in to our right-handed hitters. When we got down in the count, he was tough.”
“Putting runs on the board first is always important,” continued Hess. “It could’ve changed the complexion of the game. We had first and second with one out, and couldn’t push any runs across.”
“He was around the strike zone a lot,” said McKinney of Totaro, “so we had to jump on him early. And he had a good off-speed pitch and great defense behind him. But I thought (NL stater Ian) Whitman pitched pretty well too.”
Whitman, the Vikings’ right-handed sophomore, was effective early. After surrendering John Wilt’s lead-off triple and a first-inning run, Whitman closed the door over the next two frames.
What led to Whitman’s downfall were a couple of walks in the fourth, both of which came after he had gotten ahead in the count 0-2. Both eventually scored as part of the Black Knights’ three-hit, four-run inning that made it 5-0.
“I thought Ian threw well early,” said Hess. “They got to him at the end a little bit.
“Against a very good team like this, mistakes are magnified,” added Hess. “They’re (the Black Knights) not going to let you get away with them.”
“I felt like we could’ve given them a better shot,” said McKinney. “I thought we could’ve hit the ball harder.”
A Viking throwing error in the fifth fueled Hempfield’s three-run at-bat that made it 8-0. The Black Knights scored all three after two outs had been recorded.
“I don’t think we played that badly,” said Hess. “They’re (the Black Knights) a good team. We just ran into a very good team. I’m not disappointed with the way we played.”
“We have nine seniors and this was our last chance for leagues,” said McKinney. “It feels pretty good being on a beautiful field like this on such a beautiful day. But the loss stings a little bit.”