BROCKWAY — The Chucks have had a recent history of receiving big games in the state playoffs from unlikely heroes.
In 2007, No. 6 hitter Alex Cressley went 4-for-4 and drove home the game-winning run during a 3-2 victory in eight innings over undefeated West Allegheny in the first round of the PIAA playoffs. In the state title game that year, No. 9 hitter David Pisano hit a game-tying triple with two outs in the seventh inning, and he later scored the winning run to propel the Chucks to the state championship.
Monday in Brockway, No. 9 hitter Devan Neal drove in Punxsy's first two runs with a two-out single. Following his breakout hit, he finished the game 3-for-3 with a double, two RBIs and two runs scored during the Chucks' PIAA playoff-opening victory over Hampton, 11-1 in five innings.
After they fell in the first round of the state playoffs the past three seasons, the eight-time reigning District IX Class AAA Champion Chucks surpassed the first round for the first time since they won the state title in 2007.
"Before this game, we were talking about no pressure on this game. After the D-IX Championship, now winning and getting over the hump, I think everyone is feeling a little more relaxed, rather than just talking about it," Neal said. "The last time we advanced past the first round, we won it. It was definitely something in the back of everyone's mind. It feels a lot better now after the fact."
The Chucks will now prepare for Thursday's game in the state's Class AAA Elite Eight against Northern York at a time and venue to be determined. Northern York (20-5) defeated Somerset (18-6), 11-0, Monday at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona.
Devan Neal wasn't the only star of the game for the Chucks. Taylor Neal, was 3-for-4 with two runs and a run; Brodi Lowmaster was 2-for-3 with three RBIs and run; Jordan Mesoraco was 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs; Tyler Skerkavich was 2-for-3 with a double and a run; Zak Dickey was 2-for-2 with a run and an RBI; and courtesy runners Alex Bevak and Garrett Zimmerman each scored twice.
Clearly, the Chucks (15-7) were hitting from top to bottom — something that's been a key to their success this year.
"I think that was probably our most complete game of the year when you considering timely hitting and solid defense," Punxsy manager Mike Dickey said.
Punxsy's defense turned two double plays and was a half-second away from a third. While the Chucks were making every play in the field — they didn't commit an error — starting pitcher Joe Pisano allowed just three balls to leave the infield. Cory Callan and Zach Juliano singled to the outfield during the third and fourth innings, respectively, and John Arnold flew out in the fifth.
"If we produce as many ground balls as we did today, there's no way we're going to lose," Pisano said. "Zak (Dickey, shortstop) and Ty (Zimmerman, second baseman) in the middle, they were spectacular. The double plays that they turn are unreal."
The Talbots put a runner on third base just twice. Tommy Radzminski walked and scored on Callan's single in the third inning, and Pisano struck out Callan to end the game with Tyler Brose on third.
Punxsy hit in the clutch throughout the game. Devan Neal's two-run single and Dickey's RBI single in the second inning both came with two outs.
"We were talking about clutching up all year, trying to get ahead and putting the ball in play," Devan Neal said about his two-run, two-out single in the second inning. "It worked out. It squeaked through."
Dickey later walked in a run with two outs in the third inning, and Taylor Neal's game-winning single came with two outs.
"Situational hitting was outstanding," manager Dickey said. "Guys were battling with two strikes."
Pisano pitched all five innings. He gave up one run on two hits with three walks, two strikeouts and hit one batter. He has pitched all 19 innings for Punxsy this postseason and has allowed seven runs (five earned) on 10 hits.
"Joe's been a stud. He goes out there looking to strike kids out," Devan Neal said. "As long as he goes after them, he's all right. He's been confindent, and I think that's the biggest thing."
Punxsy will have to rely on another pitcher Thursday — most likely either left-hander Lowmaster or Taylor Neal. Manager Dickey hopes whomever he puts on the mound Thursday will be ready for Northern York.
"You hope your No. 2 is better than theirs," he said. "We'll be ready to go. We're not done."