For today’s “When Sports Were Played,” we go back to May 30, 2017, when California High School had to go a few extra innings to win the WPIAL Class A baseball championship.
The devastating memory remained vivid for John DeFranco and the rest of the California High School baseball team’s seniors. As DeFranco lowered his head the last time in a WPIAL championship game, it was for Trojans coach Nick Damico to place a silver medal around his neck.
DeFranco was determined to make new memories.
After a Brendan Sheehan double to lead off the 10th inning, followed by a single from junior Richard Stimmell, Damico called a timeout to meet DeFranco halfway between third base and home plate.
It was to remind DeFranco that he was one swing away from replacing the old with the new.
As DeFranco lifted the second pitch of his at-bat to right field, Sheehan tagged from third base to score the game-winning run as California went on to defeat Freedom, 3-1, in 10 innings to win the WPIAL Class AA championship at Wild Things Park Tuesday night.
“There was a lot going through my head,” DeFranco said about his 10th-inning at-bat, which followed an error from the senior leader the previous half-inning. “Coach called me over and told me to do whatever I could to put the ball into the outfield and get the run in. I had to come through.”
For DeFranco and the rest of the Trojans, they hadn’t stopped replaying the heartbreaking 6-4 loss to Greensburg Central Catholic for the title in 2015 or unexpectedly getting bounced early in the playoffs last season.
“We had fire in our eyes,” DeFranco said. “Losing our sophomore year was bad, but then last year might have been even worse. We got together before the playoffs and told each other that we weren’t going to go out like we did last year.”
It was a message that resonated since offseason work began in October and ended when Stimmell, who came in to relieve Nate Luketich on the mound in the seventh inning, got Freedom to ground out to end the game.
“Last year, we lost in the first round to Brentwood and it was a long offseason to say the least,” Damico recalled. “They built on that. They didn’t go the opposite way. They tried harder and these are the results.”
Luketich pitched 6 2/3 innings for the Trojans, giving up his only run in the top of the first inning on an RBI groundout from Nick Henderson to give Freedom a 1-0 lead.
California (20-2) made it even at 1-1 in the top of the fourth inning as Brandon Powell scored on a single from Tyler Jacobs down the left-field line.
“We always start slow and I keep getting on them about it,” Damico said about playing from behind. “We have a strong pitching staff and great defense. If you have that you can win a lot of games. That’s what we have here.”
As Luketich neared the pitch limit, Damico called on Stimmell, with Josh Beck on second base representing the winning run for Freedom (16-5) with two outs.
“That’s just mental toughness,” Damico said. “These games are a battle of mental toughness. Everybody on that field was mentally tough. We sold out.”
Stimmell was able to do that and more for California as he set down the heart of the Bulldogs’ lineup in order in the eighth inning.
After Freedom’s first two batters of the ninth inning reached on an error and a bloop single from designated hitter Kevin Lawrence, Stimmell didn’t allow another ball to leave the infield as he kept the Trojans alive by working out of another jam.
“It was pressure,” Stimmell said with a sigh of relief. “You just have to think about getting people out and doing your job. The seniors are the heart and soul of this team. We wanted to get them here. Without them we wouldn’t be a team.”
Stimmell, who scored an insurance run on a wild pitch to put California up 3-1 in the 10th inning, earned the win after pitching 3 1/3 innings and striking out three.
Freedom pitcher Zach Greene went seven innings before being pulled at the beginning of the eighth after reaching the maximum pitch count.
“Our motivation has been that most folks have looked past us all year,” Freedom coach Dan O’Leary said. “Several times this year, Zach has pitched seven innings and beyond while keeping his pitch count down. I had to pull him because he got to 100 (pitches), which says something about the California lineup.”
Slowly jogging to first base to judge the depth of his fly ball in the 10th inning, DeFranco’s attention turned to the last 90 feet for Sheehan. It was 90 feet that gave California its first lead of the game and made the Trojans’ seniors two-time WPIAL champions.
It was 90 feet that replaced old, bitter memories with new ones.
“I came into the dugout and got beat up,” DeFranco said. “It was amazing.”