PUNXSUTAWNEY — After the first two innings, it appeared as if Punxsy's 15- and 16-year-old VFW team might cruise to a victory over Clearfield in the opening round of the playoff tournament — one hosted by Punxsutawney — with the host leading 5-1. But Clearfield never rolled over and battled back to ensure Punxsy would need every run it scored in its 7-6 win to advance to the winners' bracket championship today.
After the game, Punxsy coach Mike Klingensmith said he thought the team played well, and that its only flaw was that, at times, it struggled to string the hits it needed together.
"I thought we played pretty solidly," he said. "We had some hitting when we needed it early, and then for a while, we didn't have the hitting when we needed it. I think we'll be OK if we can start putting together those hits whenever we have those runners in scoring position. Pitching-wise, I think we're in good shape if we keep pitching the way we did tonight. We're going to give it our best shot."
Clearfield got things rolling right off the bat with one run in the top of the second when its starter, John Janocha, helped his own cause with a sharp RBI single to right-center field.
But the home squad answered right back by taking the lead with a two-run first.
Leadoff hitter Anthony Faulk opened the frame with a bloop single out of the first baseman's reach, and after he stole second, Bryson Paulinellie plated him with a double over the third base bag.
Janocha won the battle with No. 3 hitter Clayton Dale, forcing a fly out to center that moved Paulinellie to third. Janocha followed with a strikeout of cleanup hitter Christian Falgout, but Michael Klingensmith gave his team a one-run edge with a slicing double to the fence in center.
Cory Geer went down looking for the third out of the inning, but Punxsy was ahead 2-1.
Paulinellie — the Punxsy starter — walked a pair in the top of the second, but he also kept Clearfield off the board with a 1-3 putout, a fielder's choice and a strikeout.
Threes were wild for Punxsy in the bottom of the inning, as it put up three runs on three hits and three walks.
Punxsy's first three hitters reached with hits, and it all started with a single between short and third of the bat of Matt Burkett.
Dakotah Byers belted a deep triple over the center fielder's head to score Burkett and extend the lead to two runs.
No. 9 hitter Dakota Thomas hit a sharp single back up the chute to score Byers, and after he stole second and third, he came home on an RBI groundout to short by Paulinellie.
With the bases clear, three straight walks by Janocha to Dale, Falgout and Klingensmith loaded the bases, chasing Janocha from the game for reliever Zach Timchak, and the new hurler quickly ended the threat with a fielder's choice.
The visitors answered with two in the third to cut the lead to 5-3 on one hit, one error and two walks.
Curtis Collins reached on a leadoff walk, and he scored on a two-base error to left off the bat of Josh Kennedy.
Kennedy moved up 90 feet on a Janocha single and scored on a 6-3 groundout by Cole Kephart.
Punxsy went down in order in the third, and in the top of the fourth, Clearfield chipped away with one more unearned run to set the score at 5-4.
Josh Sorbera led off the inning with a walk, and a single by Sawyer Rowles put a pair on.
Paulinellie struck out the next three he faced, but a passed ball on the first allowed the runners to move up 90 feet each, and another on the third allowed Kennedy to reach safely and Sorbera to score.
A walk to Janocha loaded the bases again, but a fourth strikeout of the inning ended it with Punxsy clinging to a 5-4 lead.
Punxsy gave itself some much-needed breathing room with two runs on a hit and two walks in its half of the fourth.
Faulk led it off with a walk, and a single by Paulinellie put a pair on.
A perfect sacrifice bunt by Dale put both in scoring position, and a Falgout walk loaded the bases.
Klingensmith plated Faulk with a sharp single for his second RBI of the evening, and a sacrifice fly to center by Geer scored Paulinellie.
Falgout was thrown out trying to take third, though it appeared as if he beat the tag, and the inning closed with Punxsy back ahead by three.
Klingensmith came on in relief in the fifth, and set Clearfield down in order on three soft grounders, and while Punxsy threatened in the home half, it left the bases loaded after walks to Ruben Taylor and Paulinellie and a single by Faulk.
Clearfield made things interesting, pulling within one at 7-6 with a pair in the sixth.
Collins reached on an infield single with one out, and a two-out walk to Janocha put two on.
Kephart singled to drive in Collins, and on a fluky play after a second-consecutive single off Wyatt Westen's bat, the ball skipped off Kephart's leg on his way into second and caromed into the outfield, allowing Janocha to trot home safely and pull his squad within one.
One run was as close as the game would come, though, as Klingensmith worked out of the jam with a soft grounder back to himself ending the inning.
Klingensmith reached with a one-out single to right and Geer walked to put two on base with one out in the sixth for Punxsy, but a pair of flyouts ended the inning and sent it to the final frame as a one-run game.
Klingensmith wasted no time completing the three-inning save, though, retiring the side in order on a strikeout, a 3-1 putout and a fly ball tracked down by Faulk in center field to end it.
With the win, Punxsy advances to today's winners' bracket final game and will take on the winner of Friday's game between Curwensville and Phillipsburg (a game that finished after Spirit press time).