Kutztown beats Halifax to win District 3 Class 2A baseball championship
May 25—FREDERICKSBURG — The Kutztown players gathered on the mound around coach Tim Mertz and pitcher Bryce Schafer with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
The ultra-competitive Schafer had just lost a shutout on a two-out triple by Halifax in the District 3 Class 2A baseball championship game Thursday at Wenger Field, and was nearing his pitch limit.
More than anything, the senior right-hander just needed to be calmed down. So before Mertz headed back to the dugout, he gave Schafer a bit of a chest bump.
"He was trying to loosen me up a little bit," Schafer said. "I was a little tight, a little frustrated. I was starting to get a little tired. Just to loosen me up, get me smiling a little bit. We only had one more out to go and we were district champions. Nothing better."
Schafer got that out on four pitches, striking out Will Steinhauer to complete a 5-1 victory over the top-seeded Wildcats and give the second-seeded Cougars their first district title since 2019.
"That's always the storybook ending, striking out the guy to end it," said Schafer, who threw a five-hitter and went 2-for-4 with a home run. "Everybody coming around you. It's awesome. It feels awesome. I can't describe the feeling."
It was a storybook ending for all of Kutztown's seniors. Matt Remick, Dalton Furst, Nick Hugo, Dom Pizzelanti and Schafer lost their freshman season to COVID, when the Cougars were the defending district champs. Then they lost to Camp Hill in the district semifinals in each of the last two years.
This time, those five were at the center of a crisply played game against Halifax (18-3-1) that gave Kutztown (17-6) its sixth district title overall and fourth under Mertz, tying a Berks record.
Mertz, who also led the Cougars to championships in 2006, 2007 and 2019, joins Bob Rentschler (Oley Valley) Tom Frees (Holy Name, Berks Catholic) and Bob Wolfrum (Wyomissing) as county coaches with four district baseball titles.
With the championship, Kutztown also clinched a berth in the PIAA playoffs. It will open on Monday, June 5, against the District 2 winner.
So the Cougars have a little bit of time to savor this championship.
"This is awesome," said Furst, the left fielder. "This was one of my goals, this was a team goal. We deserved it. We worked our butts off all year, played good, This is awesome."
"It's a great feeling to go down in your team's history, get your name on a banner in the gym," said Remick, the shortstop. "It's all a great feeling."
Schafer was at the center of it Thursday.
He was supposed to be the Cougars' No. 1 starting pitcher this season, but he didn't throw for about a month from early April to early May as he battled bursitis, something he called "super frustrating."
He showed Thursday that he was back. He opened with three hitless innings and faced just two hitters over the minimum through four. He gave up back-to-back one-out singles in the sixth before retiring the next two, then allowed a pair of triples in the seventh.
He ended up walking two and striking out five.
"Bryce was phenomenal," said Hugo, his catcher. "He had all four of his pitches working. He was spotting up well. He was throwing it by a lot of kids, so he had everything working for him and it was just one of those days."
Remick and Pizzelanti, at second, were at the forefront of a strong defensive effort for the Cougars, which included turning a double play in the third inning.
"Defense in the beginning of the season was a little bit on the loose side," Mertz said, "and we've really tightened things up."
Kutztown, as it did in its semifinal win over Newport, used aggressive baserunning to take control.
The Cougars went up 1-0 in the second. Pizzelanti singled and took second when the Halifax right fielder mishandled the ball. Colin Hamm then singled to center to put runners at the corners.
With Colin Diehl batting, Hamm took off for second. When catcher Cohen Bechtel threw down to second, Pizzelanti broke for home and both runners were safe on the double steal.
In the third, Kutztown made it 3-0.
Remick was safe on an error, stole second, then went to third on a wild pitch. He scored when Kole Schuler hit a grounder to third that was mishandled for error.
After Schuler was caught stealing on a botched hit-and-run, Schafer hit a drive just down the right field line that cleared the fence just fair some 320 feet away.
"He threw me a hanging breaking ball and I just got it all," said the lefty-swinging Schafer. "I got my hands in and I drove it."
The Cougars scored twice more in the sixth. A double steal put runners on second and third with no out. Hamm knocked in a run with a single and Remick another with a bases-loaded walk.
With that five-run lead and Schafer on the mound, it seemed only a matter of time before the Cougars would be celebrating. It was a long-awaited moment for the seniors.
"It means everything to me and these guys," Hugo said. "We've been through hell and back together. We've put in so much hard work throughout the offseason, throughout the season, gone through so much adversity. I'm so happy it finally paid off.
""It's just a fun journey, a journey with my friends, people that I've been around since I was in kindergarten," Pizzelanti said, "so it really means so much to all of us to go out here and win this."
It also meant a lot to Mertz.
"It's really, really special," he said. "The senior group has worked hard. They've worked extremely hard."