ALTOONA, Pa. - Last season, despite entering as the PIAA District 1 champion, North Penn's stay in the Class AAAA state tournament was a short one. District 3's Hempfield ousted the Knights in the opening round.
The memory of that gut-wrenching loss fueled this year's senior-laden group. Their fire remained bright, even during bumpy periods that included a three-game losing streak early on and a one-run loss in the district quarterfinals.
North Penn's stick-to-it-iveness paid off in a big way yesterday. Behind ace righthander Eric Ruth and a rock-solid defensive effort, the Knights downed Parkland, 3-1, and left Blair County Ballpark with the school's first state baseball title.
"We were heartbroken last year, losing to Hempfield," coach Bob McCreary said. "To have these kids come back and win a state championship, I can't even describe the feeling."
North Penn (20-6) became the first District 1 team to claim a state crown since Christopher Dock won at the Class A level in 2006. West Chester East, in 2003, was the last to triumph in the large-school classification.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Ruth, with a fastball clocked from 85 to 88 m.p.h., fired a complete-game six-hitter with six strikeouts. In the bottom of the seventh inning, with the tying runs on first and second base, he induced a game-ending liner to first baseman Scott Christy.
"My heart was beating a little fast," senior shortstop Robbie Zinsmeister said. "When Scott caught that ball, it was the greatest feeling ever."
Ruth, headed to Winthrop University, a Division I program in Rock Hill, S.C., threw 73 pitches, 52 for strikes. Through four innings, his pitch count was just 35. On five days' rest, there was plenty of gas left in the tank.
"That was my lowest pitch count the entire year," said Ruth, who finished a splendid high school career with a 20-1 record and 207 whiffs in 1441/3 innings. "I felt great the entire game. I didn't get tired at all."
With one out in the seventh, the Trojans registered three straight singles to drive home their only run. Ruth fanned designated hitter Mike Tenaglia, on three pitches, for the second out. The celebration began when Christy gloved Luke Jaindl's first-pitch liner.
The Knights touched Parkland starter Casey Cooperman, a junior righthander, for two runs in the fifth. Mark Grassie, the No. 9 batter, delivered a one-out double to left. Zinsmeister followed with an RBI double over the leftfielder's head. He scored on Christy's two-out single to right.
North Penn, which totaled nine hits, added a run in the seventh on Justin Davey's one-out triple to right-center. That shot brought home Zinsmeister (2 for 4, two runs).
Ruth was boosted by stellar fielding. In the fifth, on a one-out grounder, Zinsmeister, Christy, and Jimmy Smith combined for a 6-3-5 double play. Christy, involved in nine putouts, gunned down the baserunner trying to advance from second to third.
"I'm so happy for the kids, especially the seniors," McCreary said. "They've worked so hard. One of the best things about them is that they have a great respect for the game."
North Penn 000 020 1 - 3 9 0
Parkland 000 000 1 - 1 6 0
WP: Eric Ruth. LP: Casey Cooperman. 2B: NP–Mark Grassie, Robbie Zinsmeister. 3B: NP–Justin Davey.