So much of what propelled Northeastern into Thursday's PIAA Class AAA baseball quarterfinal game came from the poise with which the Bobcats have played the last couple weeks.
Few mistakes and a cool confidence on the field, plus some timely hitting, helped them win three District 3 games and one state tournament game.
Yet, those facets eluded the Bobcats on Thursday in Fredericksburg against District 1 champ Pope John Paul II. From the start, Northeastern seemed frayed. And the Bobcats wouldn't recover from their early blunders, losing 4-1 to bring their season to a close.
"Maybe we were a little nervous," 11th-year Northeastern coach Don Kauffman said.
Kauffman was in his first year as a head coach back in 2004 when he led the Bobcats to the state AA title.
"This is a pretty loose group, but just a couple plays early in the game there didn't go our way," he said. "We didn't necessarily make the plays we wanted to make. Maybe it was a little bit of nerves."
After Northeastern (16-10) left leadoff man Nick Sprenkle stranded at third in the top of the first inning, Bobcats' starting pitcher Cody Reeser walked the first batter he faced in the bottom of the frame, then allowed him to move to second base when a pickoff attempt turned into an error.
Three batters later, Sprenkle bobbled a grounder up the middle on what would've been the third out, putting runners at the corners with two outs. Pope John Paul (21-6) got Northeastern to bite when trying to steal second, resulting in Bobcats' catcher Devon Blymire throwing down to second, and letting the lead runner come home from third. The next batter drilled an RBI single to right to give Pope John Paul an early 2-0 advantage.
"To win at this stage of the season, usually the team that plays the most fundamental is going to win," Kauffman said. "We made a lot of mistakes. I'm sure if we go back and look at the book we had more mistakes than they did today. And we still had a chance. We had some good chances to win."
The Bobcats scored their only run in the second inning when Reeser crossed the plate thanks to a Pope John Paul error. Three batters later, Sprenkle, the team's leader in batting average, came to the plate with the bases juiced and one out and aiming to tie the ballgame or take the lead. He instead went down swinging, and Blymire followed by grounding out to short. Northeastern didn't threaten again until a two-out rally in the sixth inning that left runners stranded at first and second.
Pope John Paul added a pair of runs in the third inning on two hits, three walks and an error. Golden Panthers' starting pitcher Josh Lafferty, a recruit of NCAA Division III Widener University, gave up the one unearned run and held Northeastern to four hits with five strikeouts and two walks in 6.2 innings of work. Pope John Paul has now reached the state semifinals for the first time ever after winning the program's first District 1 title last week.
Reeser went five innings for the Bobcats, surrendering four runs (two earned) on four hits and six walks with three strikeouts.
"We had a great season regardless of the results today," Kauffman said. "This was an outstanding season. There's not many times you can say you made the state tournament, let alone making it to the state quarterfinals. We have nothing to hang our heads about. We were one of the final eight teams in AAA playing. That's a great season."
Plus, Northeastern will bring back all but four players next season.
"It'll help us for future years," Kauffman said of the playoff run for his young bunch. "In the same breath, every year is a new year. All the teams will get better. We're not the only team who will have guys back. We'll be better but so will some other teams."
— Reach John Walk at firstname.lastname@example.org.