Laurel dispatches Freeport in 1st round

| Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 11:58 p.m.

For four batters, Freeport made Laurel coach Eric Verdi nervous. Then Rick Jones came in and soothed his coach's nerves.

Jones struck out six and allowed one hit over four innings Tuesday, pitching No. 12 Laurel out of a jam and toward a 7-1 triumph over No. 5 Freeport (12-7) in a WPIAL Class AA first-round game at Seneca Valley.

While Jones picked up the win, Brandon Ritchie started the game for Laurel, which advanced to the quarterfinals for the fourth straight year. The Spartans (16-5) play South Fayette today, a quick turnaround that led to Verdi's uncertainty yesterday afternoon.

Though Ritchie gave up one hit through three shutout innings, the Laurel coach took his ace out of the game in order to have him available to pitch today. According to WPIAL rules, a player can pitch in a maximum of three innings in one game and still be eligible to pitch the next day.

At that point, Laurel had a 5-0 lead, and Josh Dando came in to pitch. Dando then faced three batters: Matt Swartz, Damon Smith and Noah Shannon. They all singled, loading the bases with none out when Jones took the mound.

After walking Levi Negley to give Freeport its first run in the top of the fourth, Jones struck out Luke Mariotti and Nick Brosius, and Dustin Koedel grounded out to end the inning. From then on, Jones cruised.

“This might be our seventh playoff trip, and I've always gone with our No. 1. I've never pulled him. And as soon as that happened …” Verdi said. “Freeport's a team that hit all year. Five runs — I was nervous. I didn't think it was enough. That's why I have a good coaching staff to push me a little bit.”

Meanwhile, Laurel roughed up Freeport starter Robbie Miller for five runs on eight hits over four innings. Jake McQueen came in and allowed three hits over three innings, giving up two runs, one earned, but Freeport's bats couldn't recover the lead against Jones.

“He did well. He threw strikes, and that's what you have to do in that situation,” Freeport coach Chris Graczyk said. “In the opposite sense, we have to put the bat on the ball. I think we went down looking twice there with no outs, and you can't let that happen. But we did.”

Miller and Koedel also singled for Freeport, but the Yellowjackets' lineup might have fared better with injured star Ryan Dunn, who remained out with a broken hand.

Freeport also lost pitcher Ethan McCormick this season but managed to finish tied with Deer Lakes and Burrell for the Section 3 title — something Graczyk praised his otherwise young team for.

“I don't even think they realized what they were doing. They were taking control of their section, game by game, with mostly juniors and sophomores,” Graczyk said. “Like I just told them, if somebody had told me in the middle of the season I would lose my top two arms and my leading hitter and we'd still win part of the section, I'd have told them they were crazy. But we did.

“So these boys worked really hard to pick up the slack for Ryan and Ethan McCormick,” Graczyk said. “It's no small accomplishment for them, so I commend them for that. They worked hard.”

Pat Mitsch is a freelance writer.

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