HERSHEY — After the Spring Grove baseball team fell to West York in the York-Adams League playoffs, Coach Kevin Stiffler decided to hold a Saturday practice.
Sensing that his team needed a way to get over a disappointing setback to the Bulldogs, Stiffer felt that getting them back on the field right away was a good start. But it wasn't the only thing that Stiffler, a former assistant who is in his first year as the head coach of the program, had up his sleeve.
So, before agreeing to take the team out for a Saturday night pizza party, he decided to make a quick stop at the high school's gymnasium. Stiffler knew that many banners hung on the walls there. But he also knew that one banner was missing. So he decided to point that out to his young squad.
"We went into the gym and I sat the guys down and said 'just look around,'" Stiffler said. "Look at these banners. What's missing up there?"
The missing banner was one that marks a District 3 baseball title.
Now for Stiffler and his Rockets, they are closer than ever to filling that gap. Behind the standout pitching of junior Matt Brooks, Spring Grove knocked off Twin Valley 4-2 in a District 3-AAA semifinal contest at Hershey High School on Tuesday.
With the triumph, the Rockets (18-6) will play for the program's first District 3 title at 7 p.m. Thursday at Santander Stadium in York. The Rockets will square off against Donegal (20-5), which downed Manheim Central 8-2 in the other semifinal.
"We've had a good successful run (recently)," Stiffler said. "And that's something that I've been proud to be a part of. But you just have to put complete games together in all phases of the game. And we've been saying all year 'why not us?' and ... I don't know. It's these guys. It's not anything I'm doing."
A couple of the guys who have proven invaluable all year again played big parts in Tuesday's triumph.
The first one was obviously Brooks, who wasn't perfect but was plenty good enough. The right-hander allowed seven hits and two runs, but he stranded seven runners over seven innings. And, oh yeah, he struck out 11.
"We're more confident than anybody else," said third baseman Caleb Ruth of the team's psyche with Brooks on the mound. "He just throws a gem every single game. He throws his heart out there. He's just been great."
With the one-two pitching punch of Brooks and senior Anthony Reed, Ruth's contributions tend to get overshadowed. The sophomore provided a big RBI single with two outs in the second. That run restored the team's two-run lead after the Raiders pecked away for a run in the top of the inning.
"That's the difference in the game right there," Brooks said.
"He had some nice at-bats," Stiffler said. "And he could have had a couple more RBIs with that one there at the end."
With runners on first and second in the sixth, Ruth sliced a low liner to right. It took a nice diving catch by Twin Valley's Kris Otto, who appeared to break late on the ball, to prevent Ruth from adding on those insurance tallies.
The only real trouble that Brooks faced came from the middle of the Twin Valley lineup. Colin Hartey was 2-for-2 with a single, double and a walk in three appearances. Casey Fitzsimmons, the No. 5 hitter, was 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Conversely, the rest of the Raider lineup was just 3-of-20 against Brooks.
"They are definitely some good hitters in that lineup," Brooks said. "But I was able to get my curve ball hanging down low and they ended up swinging through stuff."
Derek Hoiles and Buzz Schuchart drove in runs for the Rockets, who collected just six singles off TV starter Adam Alexy. The Raiders, however, committed four errors, one of which directly led to the two runs scored in the first inning.
While the victory Tuesday was nice for Stiffler and his crew, the post-game celebration was a bit subdued.
Perhaps it's because they're saving themselves for what could happen Thursday if they defeat the final team between them and their goal of a district banner for the gym.
"This is huge for us," Brooks said. "Coach took us into the gym a few days ago and we looked at the banners. And nobody has a district banner (in baseball). So we can be the first. And being in there, we've seen the stuff that we've done (so far this year), but we definitely have more to do."
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.