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Armstrong carries Clarence to Class AA championship

NIAGARA FALLS — When the stage was the grandest, arguably Western New York’s finest player was up for the moment.

Dominant Clarence senior pitcher Mark Armstrong went the complete game as the Red Devils bested Lancaster, 2-1, in the Section VI Class AA championship game at Sal Maglie Stadium.

“Somebody asked me how I was before the game and I said: ‘Hey, I’m nervous,’ ” Clarence head coach David Smith said after receiving a Gatorade bath. “He said: ‘Listen, everybody in New York State wants the guy you’ve got pitching on the mound.’ And that’s the truth. Any time you’ve got him pitching on the mound, you’ve got a chance against anyone.”

Armstrong, who has committed to play baseball at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall, scattered three hits over seven innings with one walk and 10 strikeouts. He came up clutch when the game was on the line.

There were runners on first and third with one out in the final frame, but Clarence catcher Alex McGlue gunned Kevin Colafranceschi out as he attempted to steal second. With a man on third and two outs, it was Armstrong’s moment.

He struck out Spencer Blizzard to end the game. Armstrong threw his mitt in the air as he was mobbed by teammates.

“I knew I was in command the whole time because I know the guys have my back,” Armstrong said.

As for the near-collapse at the end of the game?

“It’s not going to happen again next week,” he smiled. “Let’s put it that way.”

Clarence advances to the Far West Regionals to play the Section V (Rochester area) champion on Tuesday.

Armstrong’s teammates said after the game they knew their leader would seal the title game.

“He’s the best player I’ve ever watched myself,” second baseman Bryan Jost said. “We’re pretty confident playing behind him. I always have faith that he’s going to come through. It’s the most exciting thing that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Clarence scored its two runs in the fifth inning, both via walk. With a man on first and one out, Jost doubled to deep right to put runners on second and third with Armstrong coming to the plate. He was intentionally walked for the second time in the game, loading the bases with one out. Ryan Stekl got out of the inning, but not before he’d walked home two runs.

“It’s a feeling of accomplishment, that you worked so hard and came up with it,” Armstrong said.

Lancaster scored its run when it jumped to a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning. Stekl drew a walk to lead off the inning and then advanced to third when Armstrong’s errant pick-off attempt went into the outfield. From there, the Redskins’ Ted Wilson singled to center.

“We had to do everything we could to scrape across a couple runs, and luckily we did,” Smith said. “I didn’t want them to get too anxious, and they did show some patience.”

Clarence was the No. 1 ranked team in Class AA and Lancaster was No. 3, but the rankings were irrelevant in the top of the seventh inning.

That’s when Armstrong lived up to the hype, carrying his team to the sectional title and Far West Regionals.