STATE COLLEGE -- It was not until after the furor had died down -- after the mad yells and the celebratory mob, after the trophies and medals had been handed out -- that the emotion finally overwhelmed them.
It happened in the left-field corner of Penn State's Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, 15 minutes or so after the West York baseball team had put the final touches on its first state championship in program history -- a 9-6 victory against District 3 foe Lampeter-Strasburg in the PIAA Class AAA title game Friday. Bulldogs coach Roger Czerwinski asked his players to pause and remember three people close to the program who recently died. One of them was Czerwinski's best friend.
The coach began to choke up. So did his players.
West York could not have picked a better way to honor those three.
The Bulldogs capped their historic season in fitting fashion Friday night, grabbing an early lead against the District 3 champion Pioneers and then holding on late. West York's offense ripped 11 hits, piling on pressure until Lampeter-Strasburg cracked. And ace right-hander Kaden Hepler fired his seventh complete game of the season, overcoming bouts of wildness to earn his fourth win in four state playoff games.
It was the final note of a dream season. West York (24-4) won a YAIAA championship last month, and knocked off three district champions -- including the Pioneers (23-7) -- during their run to the PIAA title. Up until two weeks ago, the Bulldogs had never won a state playoff game.
"It's something we've worked for and prepared for since we were 7 or 8, playing together," West York center fielder Jerrin Toomey said.
But Friday was more than the fulfillment of a season-long goal. The Bulldogs arrived in State College with heavy hearts. Two days earlier Brandon Kinneman and his brother, Bulldogs freshman Brett, learned their great-grandmother, Marilyn Slonaker, had died. It was the third such loss for the team this season. Senior catcher Jesse Bortner's grandfather, James Hawke, died before the season, as did Czerwinski's best friend, Father Tom Walsh.
It was Brandon Kinneman who caught the final out Friday, swallowing a foul pop-up by Lampeter starting pitcher Peter Darrenkamp into his black, Mizuno mitt. Hepler crouched to the ground and screamed. The Bulldogs players heaved their gloves in the air, then rushed to pile on top of their pitcher.
"It's great to win it for them," Brandon Kinneman said.
Added Bortner: "No one could have ever predicted how we came together this season."
Kinneman also struck the biggest blow during West York's breakthrough second inning, when he smashed a two-run double off the glove of L-S third baseman Colton Stoltzfus. That pumped the lead to 5-1.
But the Bulldogs also were helped along in that second inning by the Pioneers' sloppiness. An errant feed to second base by shortstop
West York tacked on another run in the fourth on a single by Kinneman (2-for-4), and plated three in the sixth to take a 9-4 lead. Four West York players had two hits, including Toomey (2-for-2, two runs and an RBI) and Brandon Rauhauser (2-for-3, two runs and an RBI).
That was enough for Hepler, who finished his season with a sparkling 14-0 record. This outing, however, was not exactly vintage. The Pioneers' six earned runs equaled the total Hepler had allowed in 83 1/3 innings this season before Friday. Hepler walked seven batters, struck out eight and threw a season-high 149 pitches.
Still, the Winthrop recruit managed to tiptoe through the L-S lineup -- he allowed one hit after the third inning. In all, he pitched 23 of the 26 innings West York played during the state playoffs.
Luckily, he still had something left for the seventh.
"I told (Czerwinski) before that seventh inning, 'If it this was a three-game series, I could throw Game 2,' " Hepler said.
The senior struck out the first two batters in the seventh on fastballs of 87 and 88 mph, respectively.
Then, after a pair of walks and a single led to two runs, the party could finally begin.
"It's like a dream come true," Hepler said. "You can't imagine something like this happening, it just does."
Later, after he received his medal, Hepler went down his row of teammates and hugged each of them, one by one.
Then it was time for one more meeting down the left-field line, a chance to celebrate this moment and remember three of the people who helped lead them here.
Here's a look at West York's state tournament run:
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