Spring Grove made sure its season didn't end any earlier than it had to.
The Rockets fell behind Palmyra by 10 runs in the first three innings of Thursday's District 3 Class AAA quarterfinal at Northern High School. But they scored a couple runs and got a run-saving diving catch from center fielder Cam Sterner to avoid seeing the game end early by 10-run rule.
Then they lingered in the outfield for a meeting full of held-back tears and hugs after a 10-2 loss that eliminated them from the playoffs one game short of a state tournament berth.
It wasn't so much the hope of making a second trip to states that kept the Rockets on the field, but rather the desire to extend the careers of their two senior starters for a few more minutes.
Shortstop Matt Brooks, a UNC-Charlotte commit who pitched a shutout in Tuesday's first round, anchored a team that went to the state tournament last year and won a YAIAA title two years ago. Third baseman Caleb Ruth has been one of the team's best hitters and a reliable glove on the corner for the past two seasons. The team's other two seniors, Craig Day and Josh Bellamy, both played spot roles this season.
“Caleb Ruth is a great student and a gritty player. Matt Brooks, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. It’s an honor to coach those two guys," teary-eyed coach Spring Grove coach Kevin Stiffler said. "They carried us last year and set a great example. You don’t want it to end, but it’s high school. They’re going to move on and do great things. I just loved coaching them.
“I wanted to get back to states. I wanted to see Matt out on the mound for one more game. It’s just tough.”
The trouble started early as Palmyra No. 3 hitter Evan Hallowell ripped a run-scoring double in the first inning, then broke the game open with a bases-clearing double in the second inning.
“We felt we could still string something together, especially because it was only the second inning," Brooks said. "But we couldn’t get any breaks. It just didn’t happen.”
In the third and fifth innings, Spring Grove saw its leadoff hitter reach base only to see two hard-hit balls end in double plays minutes later. The Rockets amassed nine hits off Palmyra starter Zach Yingst, but they plated only two runs, while the Cougars bashed eight hits off two pitchers in the first three innings.
“When you get to this point, you need a strong No. 2 pitcher to get the next win," Palmyra coach Tim Gingrich said. "A lot of people have No. 1’s but if you don’t have a No. 2, you won’t go too far. (Yingst has) done a great job for us all year.”
Palmyra advances to Tuesday's district semifinal against Bishop McDevitt, which upset top-seed Greencastle-Antrim. The Rockets, meanwhile, turn the page to a new chapter without Brooks or Ruth but with the rest of their starters returning.
“We have so much potential," said Ruth, who plans to come to games to support the team while attending Penn State York. "There was a huge turnout for the JV team this year and there’s a lot of young kids that have potential to do big things.”