By Michael Petro
North Collins played enough opportunitic baseball and received enough big hits to send the baseball program to its first-ever state semifinal.
The Section VI champion Eagles overcame their struggles in the fourth and fifth innings – which included four walks, four errors and one hit batsman – and scored four runs in the top of the seventh to earn a 9-5 win over Lima Christian in Saturday’s Class D Far West Regionals at Frontier Field in Rochester.
North Collins outhit its Section V counterpart, 9-1, but still found itself tied at five apiece going into the seventh. The Eagles continued to manufacture offense in the final inning, scoring the game-winning run without a hit, and then got a key two-RBI double from senior catcher Harley Mehnert for some insurance.
“It wasn’t a well-scripted game, by any means, but when you look at the board, they only had one hit, so if we lose that game, we’re all scratching our heads and wondering what happened,” North Collins coach Paul Kellner said.
It’s the first time in four tries that the Eagles will advance past the Far West Regional. They’ll play in the state semifinals June 9 in Binghamton.
“It’s pretty big for a small-town school,” Kellner said. “We’re going down there not only for the experience but we’re going to try to win. That’s what we’re here for. Nobody thought we could get this far.”
Olean did not enjoy the same success in its attempt to get to the state tournament for the first time in program history. The surprise Section VI Class A champions fell, 7-0, to Section V’s Sutherland in the nightcap.
With runners on second and third in a scoreless game in the bottom of the sixth, Sutherland sophomore Connor Fitzsimmons lined a fly down the right field line that was misplayed in the Olean outfield, scoring two. It turned into a seven-run inning – on only two hits – in which the Knights sent 12 batters to the plate.
“We had a great season and the kids played well. Nobody really expected us to get this far in Class A, so I’m proud of all of our guys,” said Olean coach John Zambanini, whose team finished 17-2. “But hats off to (Sutherland). They’re a hell of a team.”
For North Collins, junior fifth-year varsity player Brandon Zielinski picked up the win on the mound, finishing the game with consecutive 1-2-3 innings, and notched an RBI-double in the fifth, which helped put the Eagles up 5-2. He got the team’s final 12 outs, six by strikeout, in relief of starting pitcher and junior classmate Trevor Mercado.
North Collins needed only one hit in the seventh to score four times. Dylan Winter was hit by a pitch, moved to second on a Zielinski walk, stole third when nobody covered the base on a bunt attempt and crossed the plate for the winning run on a wild pitch. Zielinski and senior Nathan Turnball, who reached on a fielder’s choice, scored on Mehnert’s hit. Mehnert scored on an error.
“It put some pressure on us but we just didn’t give up,” Zielinski said. “It’s one of those moments when you have to dig deep and give it your all. ... We knew we were going to continue to hit and at the end we just had confidence in our hitters and pitchers and we got the job done.”
“We knew if we put the ball in play, they might make some mistakes and we were fortuitous in that regard. But we got some big hits from our big-time players,” Kellner said.
In Class A, winning pitcher Max Carver and Olean’s Bryan Bizzaro battled it out through five-and-a-half scoreless innings. Bizzaro (six strikeouts) seemed to injure his arm in the fifth. He was evaluated and stayed in the game to get the final out with runners on second and third, but did not come back out to the mound in the sixth. Zambanini said after the game it was a bicep injury.
“(Sutherland’s) pitcher threw a heck of a game and we weren’t swinging the bats like we normally do,” Zambanini said.
Meanwhile, Carver kept on rolling, striking out 14 batters and limiting Olean to just three hits. The Huskies loaded the bases in the fifth inning with one out but Carver got a strikeout and flyout, and Olean’s Dell Butler doubled in the first and was left stranded at third.