SLIPPERY ROCK — Titusville’s quest for the first District 10 baseball championship in school history came to a frustrating end on Friday in the district semifinal round at the hands of the Region 2 champion Franklin Knights.
In their third matchup of the season, the Rockets left 10 runners on base at the plate, while a couple of defensive miscues allowed the Knights to score a pair of costly runs. In the end, it was Franklin who advanced to Monday’s District 10 Class 3A Championship Game via a 4-1 victory at Slippery Rock University’s Jack Critchfield Park.
Franklin (20-1) starter Nick Banfi could have easily been mistaken for Harry Houdini by the way he managed to get through the first three innings unscathed. Banfi stranded at least two Rockets (12-10) on base in each of those frames, including the bases loaded in the second.
Zach Abrams doubled with one out in Titusville’s first shot at Banfi. However, Abrams would run into an out at third base on the next play when he tried to advance on Braden Roberts’ infield single in the hole between short and third. Roberts beat the throw to first base, but Franklin first baseman Austin Rhoads fired a strike to third baseman Ian Haynes who applied the tag on Abrams for the second out of the inning. Brian Clark followed with a single to put runners at the corners, but Banfi caught the next batter looking to get out of the jam with the punchout.
In the second, Derek Beach lined a one-out double, and Cole Culver followed with a walk. After a fly out, Andy Fish came through with a clutch single up the middle. However, Beach got a late jump on the ball in play and was forced to hold up at third base. The Rockets left the bags juiced as Banfi induced a pop up for the final out of the frame. Titusville also stranded a pair in the third inning.
Those missed opportunities prevented the Rockets from grabbing the early momentum in the game by scoring first. Titusville coach Roy Schweitzer believed failing to plate the first run was a crucial part of the loss.
“We feel like we left a lot of opportunities and a lot of runs out there,” Schweitzer said. “We had a guy on second base in the first inning that didn’t score on a base hit. That was a killer. It wasn’t the difference, but we could have put a different twist on the game (playing with the lead).”
Meanwhile, Titusville starting pitcher Garrett Knapp posted zeroes in his first three innings of work, while escaping a sticky situation in the opening frame. In the top of the first, the freshman walked Zachary Taylor and Tyus Wood to start the contest, but battled back to induce a fielder’s choice and two fly outs to keep the Knights off the scoreboard. Knapp surrendered a single in each of the next two innings, but managed to avoid any real scoring threat to keep the affair scoreless heading into the fourth.
Thanks to the game being pushed back an extra day due to the inclement weather on Thursday, the Rockets had their entire arsenal of pitchers at their disposal — including Cole Culver, who has been the team’s ace this season. However, Schweitzer stuck with his original plan of starting Knapp on the hill — who the Knights hadn’t seen in either of the prior two contests. The seemed move paid off for Schweitzer and his Rockets.
“Garrett gave us the shot in the arm that we needed,” Schweitzer said. “He was our number two pitcher all year. He walked the first two guys of the game, but then he settled down. He threw strikes and he kept the ball down. He has a lot of offspeed stuff off the plate that kept (Franklin) in check. Garrett did extremely well for a freshman, and we’re counting on him big time for the next three years.”
In the top of the fourth inning, Titusville was the first team to blink, as Franklin used three straight singles by Rhoads, Kaden Keely and Haynes to plate the game’s first run. Knapp worked back to get the next two Knights out before Schweitzer made the move to bring in Culver in relief to keep the deficit at one run. The southpaw struck out Carson Wible to limit the damage.
Culver, who brought an impressive 1.13 ERA into the contest, seemed to be locked in as he struck out Taylor to start the Franklin fifth. However, a fielding error on a routine ground ball to second base allowed Wood to reach safely. Culver then hit Connor Rakow with the next pitch and walked Rhoads to load the bases with just one out. Keely and Haynes followed with an RBI bloop single behind first base and a sacrifice fly to center, respectively, that gave the Knights two important insurance runs.
“We had the one bad inning, in part because of the ground ball that we didn’t take care of,” Schweitzer said. “We need to do better, and take care of our defensive situations when they come up. This is nothing that we don’t practice every day back home.”
The Rockets tallied their lone run in the bottom of the fifth inning off of Knights reliever Rakow. Clark, who tallied two hits and two walks in the final game of his high school career, drew a free pass with one out, and was chased home on Hunter Titus’ two-out double.
Franklin scratched out one final run in the top of the seventh thanks to another Titusville miscue. Rakow led off the inning with a fly ball hit to center, but the ball was lost in the sun by the Rocket defense as it dropped in for a double. Culver recorded the next two outs before Haynes singled home Rakow for the game’s last tally.
Banfi picked up the win on the mound for Franklin, tossing 3 1/3 scoreless innings. He surrendered eight hits and two walks while striking out five Rockets. Rakow notched the save with 3 2/3 frames of one-run ball.
Knapp took the loss for Titusville, allowing one run on five hits in 3 2/3 frames. Culver closed out his career by striking out five Knights over 3 1/3 innings, and was tagged with two earned runs on four hits.
Clark, Fish and Titus roped two hits apiece for the Rockets, while Abrams, Beach, Danny Jones and Braden Roberts recorded one safety. Abrams, Beach and Titus doubled.
“We’re disappointed,” Schweitzer said. “But, we were 3-13 last year, and now we were one game away from the district championship game. It speaks volumes about how hard these kids have worked.”
Clark and Culver are the two seniors who will not be back for the Brown and Gold for the 2020 campaign. Clark finished the season with a .393 average and nine extra-base hits, including a homer. Culver posted a 5-0 record with a 1.38 ERA in 10 appearances on the hill. Schweitzer said after the contest that both seniors were crucial to the team’s success.
“I can’t say enough about those two,” Schweitzer said. “They’re great kids with good parents, and if it wasn’t for those two, we wouldn’t have had the season we had. They’re the ones who helped us turn things around. They didn’t quit on us when everyone else thought it was the thing to do.”
Despite coming up short in their quest for a championship, Schweitzer believes the Rockets are a team to be reckoned with moving forward.
“Our program is going to be something to watch in the next five to six years,” Schweitzer said. “We’re excited for our future. We’re talking about getting back to the playoffs next year and going further. We really have some good ball players coming into their own.”