BINGHAMTON – There was no elaborate celebration, no boisterous cheers like the ones filling the dugout all game, only high-fives and knuckle-touches and a tempered postgame huddle. North Collins seemed like it had been in the state semifinals time and time before, when in fact the Eagles never had.
There are small schools, and then there’s North Collins, a town populated by just over 1,000 people. Everyone there knows about this baseball team, the one fueled by doubt that it couldn’t get this far since there was no proof it could.
Yet after Friday evening’s 8-2 win over SS Seward of Section IX in the Class D semifinal at MacArthur Park, one game stands between the Section VI Eagles and the most important first, a state title. Paul Kellner’s squad will get a chance at just that when it faces Section II Fort Ann on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Binghamton University.
“We’re just riding the wave,” Kellner said. “We didn’t play our best baseball today, but it was good enough. If we play well tomorrow, we’ve got a shot.”
North Collins arrived at this point thanks to its bats, for the most part, scoring 17 runs in its last two games. It didn’t take long for the Eagles to shell Seward starting pitcher Grant Gravelle, putting two runs on the board before even recording two outs. Junior Brandon Zielinski slotted an RBI double in the right-center field gap to score the first, before coming around himself for the second on a Nathan Turnbull sacrifice fly.
On the mound, Trevor Mercado kept a clean sheet through three despite allowing baserunners in each inning. He threw markedly harder than his counterpart on the hill but issued five walks through his first four and a third innings. A two-RBI single cut North Collins’ lead to 3-2, and Kellner turned to Zielinski with one out and runners on second and third.
“I’m feeling the pressure a little,” Zielinski said after the game, “but not too much. Even if we did get in a jam…I knew we could come back and score some runs.”
With his team’s hopes for a state final appearance now resting on his right arm, Zielinski calmly struck out the first batter he faced before fielding a sky-high chopper and floating an underhand toss to first to stunt any further damage.
Kellner said he brings Zielinski in to relieve Mercado, which he also did in the quarterfinals, since he likes his defense better when Zielinski is at shortstop. Yet when the Eagles needed outs, for the first time in the game when they weren’t getting them, the junior got the call.
From there, Zielinski’s intuition rang true. In the next half inning, North Collins plastered five runs on the board and batted around. Zielinski shut down Seward for the final two innings, and the Eagles have one more night’s sleep before the biggest game in program history.
“It means everything to us, the school, our little small town of North Collins,” Zielinski said. “To bring back another state title would mean everything to this town and this community.”
Friday night the Eagles will picnic at NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton. Then it’s back to the dorms between 10 and 10:30. MLB video games are a guarantee, but Kellner wants the lights out by midnight.
It’ll be like any other Friday night for high-schoolers, but with just a little more on the line when they wake up in the morning.
“No one thought that little North Collins could make it this far,” Mercado said. “But we’re showing that we’re better than what they thought. We’re the underdogs and we’re bringing it back.”