BRIAN BOSCO kept grabbing the PIAA District 1 championship medal dangling from his neck yesterday, almost trying to convince himself it was really there. Back in March, the Strath Haven baseball team wasn't thinking about playing in June; the Panthers were just looking for their first win.
Now, see where that took them - to their first PIAA District 1 Class AAA baseball championship ever, behind the three-hit pitching of Bosco, who kept No. 1 seed Holy Ghost Prep off balance in an 8-1 victory in the district finals at Upper Merion High School.
The victory propelled the No. 3 seed Panthers to their first berth in the PIAA playoffs and helped them improve to 15-6 overall after they started out 0-3. Holy Ghost Prep ended its season at 18-5.
Strath Haven advances to the Class AAA playoffs Monday against the third-place team from District 3.
A major reason why the Panthers are playing deeper into June is Bosco, who survived bases-loaded, one-out scares in the first and seventh innings. Bosco got out of the first-inning jam by getting a shallow flyout to rightfield and a strikeout. He worked out of the seventh-inning dilemma by inducing a doubleplay to finish the game.
"Brian is a gutsy, gutsy kid," Strath Haven coach Brian Fili said. "I think he started a little nervous, but battled out of it, and getting out of the first inning was huge. That could have changed the whole momentum of the game. We started well and wanted to keep that up."
Strath Haven's Mike Raimo continued with his torrid pace, blasting his 11th homer of the season on the sixth pitch of the game, giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead. Strath Haven added another run in the first, and Mike Stranix drove in two with a single in the fourth. James DeVita plated two more with two singles.
Fili has relied on those three seniors all season.
"It's all been the senior leadership," Fili said. "It's the seniors who picked us up, and everyone else jumped on board. As a group, this team has responded all year when they've been challenged. But it started with the seniors."
Raimo reached base all four times, with a home run over the left-centerfield fence in the first, hit by a pitch and two walks. He has been an anchor in Strath Haven's resurgence.
"We all saw what was happening in the beginning of the season and kicked it in at the right time," said Raimo, who's headed to West Chester in the fall to play baseball. "I'm still a little numb winning the district title, and being the first Strath Haven team to do it. Finally, after all these years, we're going to states, and I don't want this to end, and I don't want to stop playing for coach Fili - he's the one who deserves a lot of credit for this."
Entering the game, Strath Haven had concerns about Holy Ghost catcher Greg Olenski, who's bound for Maryland on a baseball scholarship. But Bosco wanted to pitch around Olenski, even if it meant getting into some brief trouble in the first inning.
"That was the plan, pitching around Olenski, but I was a little nervous that first inning," Bosco said. "Once I got out of that first inning, I started having fun."
The Panthers enter the state tournament after beating the top two district seeds, Holy Ghost Prep and Central League rival Marple Newtown, which beat the Panthers, 10-0, earlier this season.
Strath Haven got its medals and received the district championship trophy, with some players and coaches imagining what it would be like seeing a district baseball championship banner hanging in the gym. This, from a team that in March had no thoughts of playing in June.
"We like the underdog tag," DeVita said. "It's something we faced all year. We like proving people wrong, because we weren't supposed to beat Holy Ghost, like we weren't supposed to beat Marple Newtown in the district semis. We like exceeding expectations. Right now we just want to keep this going."
There's no reason to doubt them now. *
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