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DISAPPOINTING EXIT: Punxsutawney Rally in Seventh Falls Short as Chucks Lose in PIAA 3A Semifinals Again, This Time to Avonworth, 5-3

HOMER CITY, Pa. (EYT/D9) — It was supposed to be different. The third time the charm. No way could it happen again.

This was the year the Punxsutawney baseball team would get over that troublesome PIAA semifinal hurdle.

But for the third season in a row, the Chucks had to deal with disappointment — this time more profound than ever — as Punxsutawney lost to Avonworth, 5-3, on Monday at First Commonwealth Field to fall again one step short of playing for a state championship.

This loss happened in one of the most brutal of ways.

Things started badly. A three-run first inning for the Antelopes got the District 7 champions off to a fast start. Two more runs in the top of the seventh gave Avonworth a 5-1 lead and the insurance it ultimately needed as Punxsy made one final rally in the bottom of the inning.

But it fell short.

Punxsutawney Area High School sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Redbank Chevrolet and DuBrook.

“This is gut-wrenching,” said Punxsutawney coach Mike Dickey. “It’s gut-wrenching to get here three years in a row and not get past this. It’s almost too much to bear.”

With one out in the seventh, Donnie Bender tapped back to Avonworth pitcher Jacob Hanny, but the throw was errant and forced first baseman Carson Franc to leap for it. Bender stumbled when the first base bag wobbled off its mount and his momentum carried him into fair territory. The umpire ruled Bender had made an attempt to advance and was tagged for the second out.

Dickey argued and was ejected.

But the sequence sparked Punxsutawney.

Maddox Hetrick singled. Cooper Hallman was then hit by a pitch. Nevin Day singled sharply up the middle to load the bases and then Coy Martino doubled down the left field line to drive in two to make it a two-run game with runners at second and third for Parker Stahlman.

Hanny got Stahlman to fly out deep to right to end the game.

“That wasn’t the plan,” Dickey said about his ejection prompting a two-out rally. “We didn’t get baserunner we deserved. I thought that was completely the wrong call, but what are ya gonna do? It’s baseball.”

Stahlman, who came into the game with just four earned runs given up in 51⅓ innings this season, gave up three earned runs in the first against a potent Avonworth lineup.

Mason Metz had a RBI single and Cooper Scharding delivered the biggest blow with a two-run single in the frame.

But that was it for Avonworth against Punxsy’s big left-hander. Stahlman settled down and gave up just three hits and no runs over the next five innings.

“Parker didn’t have his best today,” Dickey said. “He left some pitches up in the first inning and they took advantage. He’s a battler. He kept us in the game. That was huge.”

So were the two runs the Antelopes scraped across against reliever Martino in the seventh on a wild pitch and a hit batter with the bases loaded.

Both runs charged against Martino were unearned.

“We talk about that all the time — get off to a fast start,” said Avonworth coach Jeff Bywalski. “We needed runs right away and today we did. We have to learn to score more runs as we go. We can’t just score in the first inning. But thank God we got those last two, though, right?”

Hanny got the win in relief of Scharding, who left after 2⅔ innings with an arm injury.

Hanny hadn’t pitched since the opener of the state tournament a week ago, but the senior shut down Punxsutawney and danced out of trouble in the seventh.

“He missed the last game because he had to take care of some stuff and he came back and gave everything he could to this team,” Bywalski said. “He helped put his team in a state championship game.”

If history serves, Avonworth has the inside track to the state title.

Punxsutawney lost the last two years to the eventual state champions, Central in 2022 and Riverside last season.

Both Avonworth and Punxsutawney were surprise participants in the semifinals.

The Antelopes were sitting at 6-7 at midseason, but have won eight of nine, including six straight.

“We played the best competition all year,” Bywalski said. “Yeah, we lost. We lost to 4A. We lost to 5A. When we played 3A teams, we weren’t scared. Everyone kept wanting to push us off, push us off. They didn’t want to give us a chance because we were losing to 4A and 5A teams. Guess what? We’re a really good baseball team. I can’t be more proud of a group of kids. This is the greatest team I’ve ever coached.”

Punxsutawney also wasn’t expected to get back to the semifinals after absorbing key graduation losses.

But the pitching trio of Stahlman, Day and Martino — two sophomores and a junior — helped carry the Chucks.

“I mean, to borrow a line from Mike Tomlin, the standard is the standard,” Dickey said. “There’s obviously no guarantees and getting to this point is just a tremendous accomplishment, no matter what team you are. I don’t care if you have all your guys back. It’s hard. It’s hard to win a state playoff game and we’ve won six in the last three years. This just shows you how hard it is.”

ClarionArea High School sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Redbank Chevrolet and DuBrook.