ALTOONA - The muffled notes drifted from the locker room, a dozen voices singing along in unison.
Outside, black clouds and rumbles of thunder surrounded Mansion Park Stadium and interrupted the West York baseball team's PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal against Belle Vernon. But inside in their small locker room, the Bulldogs clapped their hands and stomped their steel-cleated shoes. They sang songs by The Temptations and The Backstreet Boys and Journey.
They betrayed no hint of the magnitude of their game, or that the most important innings of their season would soon follow.
As it turns out, West York had little to be nervous about. A 1-hour, 47-minute rain delay in the first inning merely stalled what would become a 6-2 victory against the Leopards on Thursday evening.
The win ensured West York will make the program's first state semifinal appearance on Monday, when it plays District 7 champion Blackhawk, a 6-1 winner against Thomas Jefferson, at a site and time to be determined.
In a game delayed by lightning early and made sloppy by persistent showers late, the Bulldogs relied on a familiar formula. Ace right-hander Kaden Hepler twirled another complete game, striking out 10 Belle Vernon batters and improving to 12-0 on the season. Meanwhile, West York's ball-denting offense scored the first six runs of the contest, including three in the first inning.
As the Bulldogs (22-4) inch closer to their season-long goal of a state championship, they do so with a seemingly unflappable air - a looseness that prevails even in the face of tense situations.
Take, for instance, an extended rain delay with their season in the balance.
"I don't know what we were doing back there to be honest," Hepler said of his team's antics during the delay. "I think that's kind of the group we are. We can go have fun when we need to, and when it's time to get serious and get focused and play, we do that."
Added catcher Jesse Bortner: "It definitely helped. When you're more relaxed, you don't worry about it as much, and you just let stuff happen."
Even before the first thunder clouds descended on Altoona with one out in the bottom of the first inning, West York seemed at ease. Hepler cruised through the top of the first inning, and the Bulldogs scratched out a run when Brandon Kinneman's infield single brought home Jerrin Toomey.
Moments after Toomey crossed the plate, the umpires waved players off the field. Lightning flashes were visible in the distance.
Both teams eventually retreated to their locker rooms. Once there, the Bulldogs did anything but sit and stew.
"I went out and listened to them," West York shortstop Brock Gladfelter said, referring to Belle Vernon's neighboring locker room. "They were talking, but not like us. We're having a good time, just trying to stay loose and have fun. That helped a lot."
When it was time to head back onto the field, West York picked up right where it left off. Bortner lined a single to center to score Kinneman, and Hepler followed with his own run-scoring single.
Belle Vernon starter Dylan Pietrantoni lasted just 1 1/3 innings and allowed four runs (two earned).
Toomey (2-for-4) finished off the Bulldogs' scoring the fourth, when his two-out, two-run double pumped the lead to 6-0.
Meanwhile, Hepler plowed through Belle Vernon's lineup. The Winthrop-bound senior, who pitched four innings in the Bulldogs' win against Hollidaysburg on Monday, allowed six singles and a pair of walks. He lowered his season ERA to 0.54.
"I actually felt better after the delay," Hepler said. "I have no idea what it was, maybe the adrenaline started going a little bit more."
Hepler finally ran into trouble in the sixth inning. Belle Vernon (19-6) pushed across two runs, aided by a Bulldogs error and steady rains that saturated the infield and pitcher's mound. But with one on and two outs, Hepler got Leopards designated hitter Colin Berkley to pop out to second base.
The seventh inning came and went without incident. After a nine-pitch at-bat, Hepler got Belle Vernon center fielder Chaz Balsano to ground out to end the game.
West York's celebration afterward was muted. The Bulldogs boarded their coach bus bound for York with more work to do - and plenty more songs ready to be cued up.
"We'll hear it the whole way home," West York coach Roger Czerwinski said.