They say you need to play mistake-free baseball in order to win a WPIAL championship, and Latrobe certainly did the opposite of that.
After taking a 2-0 lead against No. 14 seed Hopewell in the bottom of the first inning, the No. 5 Wildcats (17-7) watched their grip on the WPIAL Class 4A championship slowly slip away, with some untimely miscues contributing to the Vikings’ comeback in an eventual 4-3 win at Wild Things Park.
Of course, battling back from adversity is nothing new for Hopewell (12-11), which lost seven games in a row in the middle of the season to fall to 4-9 overall. The Vikings barely managed to sneak into the playoffs with a record of 8-11, but they have been on a tear ever since while taking down four consecutive higher-seeded foes to capture their second WPIAL title in three years and their fifth overall.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Hopewell coach Morgan Singletary said. “We’ve got more left in us, so we’re going to see how far they go. We’re not done yet.”
Senior Landon Fox was stellar on the mound for the Vikings after a shaky first inning, tossing a complete game with six strikeouts while allowing three runs on seven hits and no walks. Fox saved his best for last, picking Latrobe’s Erick Batista off second base for the second out of the seventh inning before fanning Louie Amatucci to put the finishing touches on one of the most improbable WPIAL championships in recent memory.
“It’s way better [the second time around],” Fox said about winning his second WPIAL title. “Just the story, being the No. 14 seed and everything, being the underdog. … Playoffs are a completely different season. It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season.”
The Vikings got some key contributions from the bottom of the order to help pull off the upset. No. 8 hitter John Vescio made a tremendous diving catch in the sixth inning to preserve the one-run lead, and No. 9 hitter Zach Gigliotti went 1 for 2 with a pair of RBIs, including a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning that proved to be a much-needed insurance run.
“There are a ton of small plays that make big sparks,” Singletary said. “[Gigliotti] has been struggling lately, so having him come on was amazing. … A great team win.”
The Wildcats jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning after a two-run single by Tony Massari, but the Vikings escaped without any more damage thanks to an impressive double play turned by Gigliotti. Hopewell then promptly responded with three runs in the top of the second, as Greg Barlion led off the inning with a single before a double by Fox put runners on second and third. Barlion then scored on a wild pitch before a game-tying RBI single by Gigliotti, and Ty Eberhardt followed with a go-ahead sacrifice fly to make it 3-2.
After a pair of errors by Latrobe in the top of the fourth, Gigliotti made the Wildcats pay with a sacrifice fly of his own to make it a 4-2 advantage for the Vikings. Another Latrobe error then allowed Lucas Arington to reach base in the top of the fifth, but Wildcats left fielder Jacob Cramer made a great throw to nail Arington at the plate for the last out of the inning.
The speedy Batista led off the bottom of the fifth with a triple before coming home to score on a sacrifice fly by Amatucci, making it a 4-3 game going into the sixth. With a runner on first base in the bottom of the sixth, Vescio came up clutch with his diving catch in center to keep Hopewell on top.
“I knew I was going to catch it,” Vescio said. “It feels awesome. We’ve been putting in work. Everyone has been doubting us.”
In the bottom of the seventh, Batista reached base on a one-out bunt before stealing second to put the tying run in scoring position. Fox then caught him off guard with a well-executed pickoff, clearing the bases and setting the stage for his game-winning strikeout.
“I made the decision [to throw the pickoff],” Fox said. “I signaled to my shortstop, because I knew that kid was stealing. … I put my hands up and everything and just soaked it all in [after the strikeout]. It was great.”