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Sloniger slam not enough for Chucks in opener

June 4, 2012

Punxsy No. 2 hitter Ryan Sloniger is congratulated by PAHS coaches Jeremy Hospodar (left) and Rodney Thompson (right) after hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the fourth inning of Monday's PIAA Class AAA opening round game against Belle Vernon in St. Marys. Sloniger was a terror to Leopard pitching, going 3-for-3 with a home run, a double a single and a walk. (Photo by Zak Lantz of The Punxsutawney Spirit)

ST. MARYS — With rain clouds looming and a few showers hitting Berwind Park in St. Marys, it appeared as if the Chucks' PIAA Class AAA opening round game against Belle Vernon may be delayed due to inclement weather.

That never happened, but there was an unfortunate 40-minute delay due to a benches-clearing incident as Belle Vernon relief pitcher Dom Francia was being warned for brushing back Punxsy's No. 3 hitter Ty Zimmerman twice in a row.

When the dust settled, the umpires decided to allow cooler heads to prevail and let the teams finish the game, and the Leopards went on to pick up an 11-7 victory to advance to the second round and end the Chucks' season.

"Nobody wanted to see a game end with that scenario," Punxsy head coach Mike Dickey said. "So, both teams agreed to use proper sportsmanship, and they decided we were able to continue."

Things started out rather calmly on the scoreboard and quite perfectly for Punxsy when starter Jamie Bush set the Leopards down in order in the top half of the first.

And to follow Bush's performance, the Chucks' offense jumped out to a good start with back-to-back singles to begin for Taylor Phillips and Ryan Sloniger.

But Belle Vernon starter Matt Callaway struck out the next two hitters and got some help from catcher Parker Lynn, who picked one runner off, and the inning ended scoreless.

Belle Vernon loaded the bases in the second with none out, but Bush battled back to freeze the runners where they were and keep the Leopards off the scoreboard.

Punxsy went down quickly in the second on a flyout and a ground ball double play.

Belle Vernon busted out in a big way in the third, tallying five runs on seven hits and a walk off Bush.

Singles by Dean Manown and Chas Balsano started it, and a one-out walk by Dom Francia loaded the bases. Bush was unable to work out of this jam, though, as back-to-back two RBI singles by Joe Simsic and Dylan Shupe put Belle Vernon up 4-0.

A two-out RBI single by Lynn put the Leopards up one more at 5-0 after two-and-a-half.

Punxsy didn't roll over, though, answering with three runs with some help from three Callaway walks.

Michael Klingensmith started it with a single. He was caught stealing, though, and Taylor Phillips and Ryan Sloniger took consecutive walks before Ty Zimmerman reached on an error to load the bases.

Bush walked to plate Punxsy's first run, and Garrett Zimmerman drove two home with a single in front of the center fielder to set the score at 5-3 after three.

Belle Vernon answered right back with a three spot of it's own, chasing Bush in the process to push its lead back to five.

The inning started with three singles by Balsano, Fedora and Francia, with the third plating Balsano.

Fedora scored on a balk, and Shupe singled home Francia to give the Leopards the 8-3 edge.

Punxsy's fourth-inning four spot came courtesy of one swing off the bat of Sloniger — a grand slam deep over the wall in right — scoring Klingensmith, Baker and Dakota Thomas who all reached with help.

Sloniger's grand slam was the definite bright spot for Punxsy's offense, and Dickey said it was a good spark. But he also noted Sloniger was hot from the plate all day — going 3-for-3 — giving him nearly half the Chucks' hit total — with a double and walking once to reach base all four times he came to the plate.

"It was awesome to get back within one like that," he said. "Ryan found his stroke today, and he hit the ball really well."

With the Chucks back within one, the unfortunate turn of events occurred. It began when Belle Vernon relief pitcher Francia threw inside on the next hitter — Ty Zimmerman — with some high heat.

No warning was issued, and when he came high and hot again, the umpire called time to issue warnings.

Zimmerman and Lynn exchanged words during the time out, and things quickly went from bad to worse when both benches cleared.

The incident resulted in Zimmerman and Lynn being ejected, along with a number of coaches, but the game went on after a 40-minute delay to sort things out, as the umpires gave final warnings to each team.

Francia was not ejected and came on to record the inning's third out, and unfortunately for the Chucks, Sloniger's dinger was the final tally they would end up recording.

"Unfortunately, we just did not play very well," Dickey said. "They didn't get our best game, and in a one-game scenario, you hope to give them your best game. It's disappointing that in a big game we didn't play that well at all."

Belle Vernon added two insurance runs off reliever Cory Geer in the fifth on an RBI single off the bat of Francia and a groundout by Simsic.

Colin Berkley led off the sixth with a single and scored on a single by Balsano for Belle Vernon's final insurance run.

After the delay, a sixth-inning double by Sloniger and a seventh-inning single by Geer were the only blemishes on Francia's record.

With the loss, Punxsy's season came to a screeching halt, leaving the young Chucks squad with more to dream up for next year's story.

"After the game, I told them I was proud of their accomplishment: Winning the District IX title," Dickey said. "I don't think many folks outside our camp expected much out of us this year based on attrition and other sorts of things. But we're a gritty group of guys, and I just told them how proud I was of them."

In fact, Dickey said he hopes that his younger squad remembers the sour taste this loss left in its mouth and uses it to motivate it for next season.

"I told them to remember just what this feels like," he said. "It's not a good feeling, not a good taste to have in our mouths. So, hopefully, that'll spur us on to help us go from the time we hit the gym next year."

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