Chucks try to keep title streak alive

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Entering the season, the Punxsy Chucks baseball team put the number out there from the start: Nine.

In 2011, the Chucks earned their eighth-consecutive District IX title, and this year, the expectation was to put themselves in a position to pick up number nine.

After the number was put out there, though, Punxsy head coach Mike Dickey said it was time to put the idea of the number behind them and focus on making it to the title game one game at a time. And the Chucks did just that, earning the No. 1 seed and berth into the D-IX championship game against St. Marys this afternoon in Brockway.

"Every year is different, but the standard of the program is the standard, just like we've said from the start," Dickey said. "So, we knew if we could do the things we were capable of, we'd be in the mix for it."

Dickey also added that despite a younger team this season, he sees no issue with the Chucks finding a sense of motivation to play in the title game.

"Any time you're playing for a championship, you have to feel blessed," he said. "It should really get your juices flowing, so to speak, and get you ready to go. Again, if you can't get up for the championship game, you're in it for the wrong reasons. That's been our approach and our focus all year, and it's gotten us to where we are. Hopefully, we continue executing as a team (today)."

While the Chucks earned the No. 1 seed with a 13-4 record and a pair of wins over their championship game opponent, the St. Marys Dutch — who finished the season 9-11 — all of those numbers go out the window, and the winner of today's game earns the title.

Without a No. 3 or 4 seed in the playoffs, Punxsy and St. Marys have had more than a week to prepare for today's game.

"I think we're focused," Dickey said of his team's preparation. "Any time you can play for that championship, it's special, and our guys definitely understand that. We've been preparing well, and we're anxious to get out there (today)."

Without a doubt this season, the Chucks' bread and butter has been their pitching, with an overall team ERA of 2.94.

Punxsy's workhorse this season has been junior lefty Jamie Bush, who has pitched 34 total innings. His batting average against has been a solid .235, and he's allowed just 14 earned runs. He also leads the team in strikeouts with 31.

Another solid, steady starter has been senior Dane Baker, whose 20.1 innings pitched is second highest on the team. His ERA of 2.75 is a bit lower than Bush's, and each is averaging right around one hit allowed per inning.

Sophomore Cory Geer — who often comes on in relief — has the lowest ERA of the regulars, and he has struck out one per inning with 18 Ks over 18.1 innings.

Dickey said in a championship game, each pitcher needs to be prepared in case he is called upon, and Dickey is confident his are all prepared.

"Well, it's a championship game, so it's win or go home, and all arms are on deck and ready to go," he said. "You never know what to expect from your pitchers, but we're looking for efficiency and to pretty much continue to do what we've been doing. Pitching's been a big key to our success this year, and we don't expect that to change (today)."

On the other side of the coin, Punxsy's also had some hot hitters who have cashed in on key opportunities to lead the Chucks to their 13-4 record.

Junior Ty Zimmerman has led the offensive attack for Punxsy, reaching base almost 60 percent of the time when combining his .449 batting average with his 11 walks and six times being hit by a pitch.

Taylor Phillips also has had success reaching base for the Chucks with 10 walks, giving him the second highest on-base percentage among regulars despite a .235 batting average.

The heart of the Chucks lineup has really been where the core of the scoring has come from, though, with No. 2 hitter Ryan Sloniger, No. 3 hitter Zimmerman, cleanup Garrett Zimmerman and No. 5 Bush all reaching double digits on the season for RBIs.

Garrett Zimmerman led the team with 21 RBIs, and Bush's 16 weren't far behind.

Baker was also potent out of the leadoff spot, scoring 17 runs.

Dickey pointed out a few key areas the Chucks need to continue to excel in on the offensive end: Getting ahead early and coming through with runners on base.

"We want to play ahead, of course, because it's easier than playing from behind," he said. "We're looking to get guys on base for our run producers. Garrett's really been driving in runs for us. Ryan's been on base quite a bit, and generally, we've been able to bring those guys home between Ty, Jamie and Garrett. The more base runners you can get in a championship game, the better your chances to win are. Scoring opportunities are somewhat limited in those kinds of games, so you hope to be productive. Making productive outs, moving people when needed and bringing them in are all keys."

Whether the Chucks lean on the strong pitching they've seen all season or the offensive production that's become commonplace from certain hitters — or another player steps up and has a big game — Dickey said there's one thing that's a certainty out of his team: They will play Chucks baseball.

"I don't know that you can change anything just because it's the championship game," he said. "That's part of what got us here, and it's been a pretty good winning formula this year. So, we'll be us."