Rick O'Brien: North Penn team picked up after slow start
A little nostalgia, mixed in with some levity, can go a long way. In late April, following three consecutive Suburban One League Continental Conference losses, including an embarrassing 12-1 drubbing at the hands of Pennridge, North Penn baseball coach Bob McCreary reached into a dust-filled school closet and pulled out throwback jerseys for his players to wear in games.
A little nostalgia, mixed in with some levity, can go a long way.
In late April, following three consecutive Suburban One League Continental Conference losses, including an embarrassing 12-1 drubbing at the hands of Pennridge, North Penn baseball coach Bob McCreary reached into a dust-filled school closet and pulled out throwback jerseys for his players to wear in games.
"I've done that in previous seasons," the 11th-year skipper said. "I figured we needed to have some fun, relax a bit."
Also, before playing Hatboro-Horsham, McCreary called for a session of "phantom infield." With a make-believe ball, players went through infield practice drills, pretending to field and throw to the appropriate bases. Laughter and silliness ensued.
More relaxed, the Knights responded to McCreary's tactics by winning eight straight games and earning a No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA tournament.
A 6-5 loss to eventual district champion West Chester East in the quarterfinals spelled an end to the throwback jerseys. (Even-older throwback jerseys, of a powder-blue color, were not used only because McCreary could not dig up enough of them.) The throwback pants, white with blue pinstripes, are still being used.
No one will ever know how much McCreary's moves meant, if anything, to the squad's turnaround. But North Penn, starting with a 5-2 triumph over the Hatters, has since won 13 of 14 games.
And here the Knights are, on the verge of claiming the school's first state baseball crown. They take on Parkland, the District 11 champion, for top honors today at 4:30 at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona.
In its 13 victories since losing to Pennridge, the team has outscored foes by a combined score of 95-22. That stretch has included three shutout wins.
The three-game early-season losing skid dropped the Knights to 6-4 and bumped them out of The Inquirer's Southeastern Pennsylvania top-10 poll. They had started the season ranked No. 4 in the area.
"Maybe it was a mental breakdown or something," senior shortstop Robbie Zinsmeister said. "But I never had any real worries. I was confident we would break out of the slump."
Said McCreary: "Baseball is like a marathon. It's a long race. You're going to have ups and downs. We just got on a roll at the right time."
McCreary's top assistant is Kevin Manero, a former pitcher at North Penn and La Salle University. The staff also includes junior varsity boss Keith Clauss and junior varsity assistant Jeff Childs. Frank Yanni, an international and commercial airline pilot, is a volunteer hitting coach.
The Knights (19-6) have been powered by the solid one-two pitching punch of Eric Ruth, today's starter, and Mike Bradstreet. The senior righthanders have a combined 16 wins and 191 strikeouts.
Offensively, Zinsmeister (.398 average), centerfielder Justin Davey (.329), first baseman Scott Christy (.375), catcher Matt Albaugh (.382), and rightfielder Christian Radick (.299) have been the catalysts.
The senior-dominated group began pointing toward Altoona after losing, as District 1 champion, to Hempfield, District 3's third-place qualifier, 6-5, in eight innings in the first round of states last year.
The mission is almost complete. If North Penn can topple Parkland, an equally imposing squad, it will cap a solid turnaround from early-season woes, however brief.
And, if the championship plaque does make its way from Altoona to Lansdale, it will earn a well-deserved spot in the first-floor trophy case. Next to it should be one of those quietly pivotal throwback jerseys.