A loss in the section opener against Immaculate Conception High School April 1, 1986 was certainly no joke for the Fort Cherry High School baseball team.
In fact, the folks who began to wonder about this Rangers’ team that returned eight starters, had high expectations, and had lost four of their first six games were now skeptical.
The joke was on the doubters.
Fort Cherry turned its season around and exceeded expectations. The Rangers became champions. They won 20 consecutive games. They won the school’s first WPIAL baseball title. They finished 22-6, and they captured the fancy and hearts of a faithful following.
“I think the start we had – including that section loss – bothered us but it did not shake us,” said Brad Tokar, the team’s junior centerfielder and leadoff batter. “It wasn’t panic. We knew we just had to get on track.”
“I don’t think there was any concern,” said outfielder Larry Heirendt, “We knew what was expected of us and what we were capable of. Coach (Jim) Yanosik told us to stay the course. That’s what we did.”
The Rangers were clearly a team in control under the steady, and strong hands of Yanosik. He was loved and revered by his players and all in that Fort Cherry dugout.
Yanosik died in 2009 but the hold he had on that team and season lives forever.
“They (the players) thought a lot of him,” said John Cunning, who was Yanosik’s assistant, “and they cared a lot about him. They never questioned him and they just all came together and believed in him.”
Fort Cherry’s streak began two days after that distasteful section loss with a blowout, 11-2, victory over Washington. The section title was secured in a win over South Fayette, 14-8.
The Rangers finished with a 12-1 section mark. They were rolling, albeit into unfamiliar territory.
Throughout a postseason that featured many tense moments and incredible individual performances, it was Yanosik who understood his team and its capabilities. He helped his players remain focused to perform in tough spots.
“We were cool, calm and collected,” said Sam Baldigowski, a junior pitcher and infielder for Fort Cherry. “It was a reflection of our coach, and it was the good group of guys who were on that team. Most of us were together a long time, on regular season teams and all-star teams through youth leagues.
“We knew we were fast enough, could hit enough and field well. We were confident in our abilities, and we were together as a team. That’s a good combination.”
Fort Cherry had a bevy of players who could do many things – most of all perform in the clutch and at the pivotal moment.
The Rangers won four consecutive games to earn the WPIAL title. Fort Cherry beat Turtle Creek, 9-2, in the first round; Carmichaels, 8-5, in the quarterfinals; and Jefferson-Morgan, 5-4, in the semifinals; before whipping Ford City, 8-5, in the championship game at Pullman Park.
The Rangers placed 10 players on the Observer-Reporter’s All-District Team.
Tokar, who hit .400-plus during the regular season and .344 in the playoffs, was the Most Valuable Player. He hit safely in seven-of-eight post-season games. He stole 33 bases total.
As a team, Fort Cherry hit nearly .450 and scored 225 runs (8.03 per game).
Senior third baseman Rich Borella hit a team-high .411 and was joined on the first team by Baldigowski, who hit .365, went 6-0 as a pitcher and was superb defensively through the playoffs.
Shortstop-pitcher Jeff Lukan was a member of the All-District second team while catcher Dave Donati, first baseman Tom Lheureau, outfielders Dave Clark and Heirendt and pitchers Dave Snatchko and Terry Dalverny were honorable mention.
“The great thing about that team and those kids was if someone was down or struggling someone else was there to pick them up and go deliver a big hit, make a clutch pitch or a big play defensively,” Cunning said. “Whenever we needed something big, one of those kids provided just that. Someone always got it done.”
Lukan agreed and said it was because of the familiarity everyone had with one another and a belief in each member of the team and Yanosik that built confidence.
“It was a great group of guys,” Lukan said. “We were friends and we just kept focus on what we had to. That came from the top. Coach never got shook up. He kept it positive and calm, and he always told us it would work out.”
The chemistry was so good, that even the scorekeeper, Ricky Pascoe, joined in the fun.
Pascoe, a student with special needs, was a meticulous scorekeeper, knew the pertinent statistics, and was a presence in the dugout and within the team.
“We all had Ricky’s back,” Baldigowski said. “He knew everyone’s batting average and score of every game. Coach Yanosik looked after him and took care of him and integrated him with the team. He was one of us.”
Pascoe recalled a series of stories that crystallized what the Rangers were about.
“Chemistry,” he said. “We had 20 of 21 players return from the previous season. Chemistry. I still talk about that team today.
“I can remember going to games and we’d be on the bus and one or some of those guys would holler up to Mr. Yanosik and say ‘Coach, all these other teams have good looking scorekeepers. What’s this?’ And they pointed and looked at me.
“It was just a lot of fun. I was happy to be part of that. It was a great time.”
Many shining moments
Fort Cherry never looked out of place during its postseason run. It didn’t always play its best baseball, but they managed to find a way.
Playing at Charleroi’s Veteran’s Memorial Stadium – the Rangers’ home away from home – Dalverny started the first-round game against Section 13 champion Turtle Creek and retired the first 11 batters he faced. The Rangers were good enough offensively and Yanosik unleashed his post-season weapon, Snatchko, who registered three playoff saves.
The quarterfinals pitted Fort Cherry against Carmichaels, again at Charleroi. It became Clark’s show.
He hit a two-out, three-run home run in the fifth to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead. The Mikes battled back to tie it at 5-5 as the game headed to the bottom of the seventh and a dramatic conclusion.
With Rangers on second and third, Mikes’ head coach Tom McCombs decided to have pitcher Tom Jones pitch to Clark in a situation where it’s not unusual to walk someone. McCombs told Jones to pitch carefully to Clark make him hit Jones’ pitch.
To quote from a story in the O-R’s May 23, 1986, edition, “Clark hit Jones’ pitch all right. He hit it out of sight.”
Fort Cherry had itself an 8-5 victory and a spot in the semifinals.
Said Clark, after the blast: “I really thought they were going to walk me. This feels great.”
The typically calm Yanosik breathed a sigh of relief and said: “I’m surprised they pitched to Dave in that situation, but I was tickled pink they did.”
The victory set up a showdown between Fort Cherry and Jefferson-Morgan with the winner advancing to play for a WPIAL championship.
While it wasn’t a pretty game, the drama was pulsating, and it took a sophomore and a stellar defensive play to save the Rangers.
Yanosik’s post-season weapon, Snatchko, pitched out of a one-out, bases loaded jam in the sixth inning.
The Rockets, who made seven errors in the game – four in the sixth inning alone when Fort Cherry scored three unearned runs – somehow survived and trailed by just one, 5-4, going to the bottom of the seventh.
Jefferson-Morgan loaded the bases with no one out but again the mighty Snatchko found a way out.
Tokar caught a fly ball in center – that would almost assuredly would have tied the game. However, he threw a strike to Donato at home and nailed pinch-runner Rob Beglen at the plate for a double-play.
Snatchko struck out the next batter to send the Rangers to the title game and the PIAA tournament.
“There was a confidence (Yanosik) had in me,” Snatchko said. “He was careful how he used me during the regular season. He wasn’t going to hold back in the playoffs. He trusted me and that made me confident.”
John Curtis, Jefferson-Morgan’s coach then and now, said the game bothers him 35 years later.
“It haunts me to this day,” Curtis said. “They were a very solid team, did everything well. We made too many errors. Tokar made a great throw and Snatchko threw hard and worked his way out.”
Fort Cherry smashed the drama right out of the championship game against Ford City. The Rangers scored four runs in the first and four more in the second. Lukan started and Fort Cherry pulled off a shortstop to catcher double-play in the first inning that set the tone.
Borella, Baldigowski and Lheureau hit first-inning triples, Clark hit a two-run single and Tokar singled in the first and bunted for a single in the second.
The Rangers knocked Sabers starter Chase Martin from the game. Dennis Harriger, the ace, came on but Fort Cherry got to him a bit, too. The Rangers were sailing to a championship, winning 8-5.
“It was one of the better moments I had in high school,” Snatchko said.
Said Tokar: “We had a lot of good players, not one Division I guy or a player who would be drafted. We just had an amazing group.”
“It was an incredible experience,” Heirendt said. “Just seeing all of that happen. ... great support, tense games. We made history. It was awesome.”
Fort Cherry advanced to the state semifinals before losing to Ford City and Harriger, who was drafted by the New York Mets. The Rangers also lost the consolation game to Salisbury to finish fourth in the state.
Those defeats could not stain the season.
“That final bus ride home from Shippensburg was tough,” Pascoe said. “For me, that season was special, really special for all of us.”
Said Cunning: “Jim always said we’d get it done and we did. For us, it was great to see those kids win. It was a proud moment for everyone.”