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Apollo-Ridge snaps 21-year baseball playoff drought with lopsided win

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 11:57 p.m.

The Vikings are about to explore uncharted territory.

Austin Laird pitched a complete game and drove in three runs for Apollo-Ridge, which clinched its first berth in the WPIAL baseball playoffs since 1993 with a Section 3-AA win at Ford City, 10-0, in six innings Wednesday.

Loren Wingard scored three runs and had an RBI, and Mike Percic and Brandon Neal both had two RBIs for the Vikings (7-7, 7-5), who have won five of their last six games entering the playoffs.

The win completed a steady rise by the Apollo-Ridge program in recent years. The team's four seniors had been a part of teams with records of 3-12, 6-11 and 9-12 before reaching the playoffs this year with a rain-shortened 7-7 mark.

“It's an unreal feeling for all the work we put in. I'm kind of speechless,” Apollo-Ridge senior Ryan Ferguson said. “We're a very tight group. We play summer ball together. We all talk in school and hang out outside of school. It's a real great feeling for us.”

The game was scheduled to be the second half of a doubleheader that had the Sabers (5-9, 5-6) — who would have reached the playoffs with a two-game sweep — hosting Burrell in the opening game. Early-morning rain caused the field to require extra maintenance to be playable, but what ended up being the decisive game was played as scheduled.

“They've worked real hard, and they came here knowing they had their destiny in their own hands,” first-year Apollo-Ridge coach Joe Rice said. “They were excited to have a chance to take care of their own business and not have to rely on somebody else winning or losing.”

The final margin belied the effort of Ford City left-hander Caleb Zablocki, who struck out eight and wasn't hit hard until the final two innings. But five Sabers errors made each inning a challenge.

“That's been the story all year. I don't think (Zablocki) had a bad outing this season, but we put too much pressure on our defense because our offense has been terrible,” Ford City coach Dennis Montgomery said. “We wish Apollo-Ridge the best of luck in the playoffs. They earned it, but we just couldn't hit on a consistent basis all year.”

Laird struck out five and held Ford City to six hits to get the win as the big right-hander threw a strong start two days after recording the save in Apollo-Ridge's critical win over Burrell. Three of his six hits allowed came off the bat of Ford City's Josh Oliver, who doubled in the second and fourth innings.

“Our team is really blessed to have three really good pitchers (Laird, Percic and Jarrett Geiger),” Rice said. “I'll stand them up collectively against any three pitchers in our section, or in the state, really. It's a lot of fun having them, and I'm lucky they're all juniors, so I'll have them for my second year.”

The game went scoreless before Percic drove in two runs with a single up the middle in the top of the third. A Ford City error allowed a third run to score in that inning, and an RBI single by Ferguson made the score 4-0 after four innings.

The four-run lead would be more than the Sabers could overcome with their offensive struggles. Ford City left eight runners on base, had one caught stealing and had another caught in a rundown.

Laird hit a two-run double in the fifth to extend the lead to 6-0. In the sixth, Neal hit a two-run single, Wingard hit an RBI triple and Laird drove in Wingard to put the 10-run rule in effect.

“We're going to celebrate now, but we're going to get right back to work tomorrow for the playoffs,” Ferguson said.

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.

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