Talented Red Land to present Bethel Park with unique challenge in state 5-A baseball final

BRAD EVERETT
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Red Land's Benny Montgomery, left, celebrates with Cole Wagner after Wagner scored against Manheim Central in a PIAA Class 5-A baseball semifinal at PeoplesBank Park Monday, June 14, 2021. Red Land went on to win 8-0. Bill Kalina photo

Bethel Park will face a unique opponent in Thursday's PIAA Class 5-A championship.

Red Land High School, located in northern York County, features center fielder Benny Montgomery, who is being projected to be taken in the first 20 picks of next month's MLB draft.

But Montgomery has some competition when it comes to the most famous player on this Patriots team. Six years ago, four of their other players starred on the Red Land Little League team that won the U.S. Championship at the Little Little League World Series.

"They're never going to play in front of more people, that's for sure," said Red Land coach Nate Ebbert. "They're never going to experience anything like that unless they make it to the major leagues."

Bethel Park (21-4) will no doubt have its hands full as it tries to win its second PIAA title when it takes on defending champion Red Land (25-4) at Penn State's Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Bethel Park won its only title in 1988. Red Land won them in 1990 and 2019. Game time is 4:30 p.m. and the game will be telecast live on PCN.

"Red Land obviously has the talent that they have," Bethel Park coach Pat Zehnder said. "We know that we're going to have another great test on Thursday. But we've beaten a lot of great teams on this run, so we're not going to be intimidated."

Montgomery is the main atttraction: As has been the case in all of Red Land's games this spring, Montgomery is going to be the main attraction. Ebbert said there were about 30 major league scouts at Red Land's first scrimmage, which served as an eye-opener to not Montgomery, but to the entire team.

"It was like, 'Man, this is going to be crazy,'" said Ebbert. "It almost got to be normal, which is weird to say."

Montgomery is a rare talent who is tall (6-feet, 4-inches), runs like a deer, has a cannon for an arm and can seemingly hit the baseball a mile. He appears to be a surefire first-round pick, and the closer it gets to the July 11 draft, the closer he gets to the top 10 in mock drafts. MLB.com has him going No. 13 and Baseball America No. 17. ESPN ranks him the No. 11 player in the draft. He committed to play at the University of Virginia, but will almost certainly forgo that opportunity.

Red Land rolls over Manheim Central, returns to PIAA Class 5-A baseball championhip game

"His tools are off the charts," Ebbert said. "He runs a 6.3 60 [yard dash] and throws 97 [mph] from the outfield. We have a natatorium out past left-center field. Nobody else ever hits the ball on top or against it, but he puts it on top all of the time.

"One of the guys around here [alum Danny Sheaffer] played for the Rockies and coached in the minor leagues. He told me, 'You can coach for another 25 years and not coach someone like him."

This season, Montgomery is batting .426 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs. Assuming he does get selected in the first round, he'll become the fourth player to be an MLB first-round pick and play in a PIAA championship game in the same season. The others are DuBois' Jim Pittsley (1992), Punxsutawney's Devin Mesoraco (2007) and Plum's Alex Kirilloff (2016).

Red Land's Cole Wagner takes the throw as Marple Newtown's Dillon Can returns safely to first on a pickoff attempt in PIAA Class 5-A first-round baseball action at Red Lion High School Monday, June 7, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

Former Little League stars: Surprisingly, Montgomery wasn't on that Red Land Little League team in 2015. He lived in Bloomsburg at the time, and then moved to Lewisberry a few years later. However, among those on the team were four current players — senior first baseman Cole Wagner, senior third baseman Ethan Phillips, senior shortstop Braden Kolmansberger and junior pitcher Kaden Peifer.

The 2015 Red Land team, which won the Mid-Atlantic Region title, beat Pearland, Texas, 3-2, in the U.S. Championship before losing to Tokyo Kitasuna, Japan, 18-11, in the LLWS Championship.

"To see them do that, that was a crazy experience," Ebbert said.

Wagner, who homered in that U.S. Championship, is a big-time talent who, like Montgomery, might be taken in next month's MLB draft. A University of Georgia recruit, Wagner is hitting .341 with four home runs and 31 RBIs. Ebbert called him a "perfectionist," which is the case in the classroom, too. Wagner was the valedictorian of the senior class.

Red Land's Ethan Phillips laughs with the first base coach after hitting a single against Manheim Central in a PIAA Class 5-A baseball semifinal at PeoplesBank Park Monday, June 14, 2021. Red Land went on to win 8-0. Bill Kalina photo

Red Land to face talented pitcher: Red Land averages nearly nine runs per game, but as talented as its offense is, producing much offense could prove to be difficult against Bethel Park senior left-hander Eric Chalus, a Kent State recruit and one of the WPIAL's best pitchers. Chalus is 10-0 with a 0.85 ERA. In 66 innings, he has 85 strikeouts and has issued only two walks.

Said Zehnder: "It's going to be a challenge. It's going to be exciting. And I can't wait to see Eric Chalus battle against them because that's an elite competitor right there. You better believe he's going to be ready to go for that."

Led by Chalus and sophomore right-hander Evan Holewinski, Bethel Park's pitching has been sensational this season. That has been especially true in the postseason, as the Black Hawks have surrendered just seven runs in seven games. In a 1-0, nine-inning win against Central Mountain in the semifinals, Holewinski fired seven scoreless innings and junior right-hander Cody Geddes kept Central Mountain off the board in the final two.

Red Land's Kaden Peifer hits a single against Marple Newtown in PIAA Class 5-A first-round baseball action at Red Lion High School Monday, June 7, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

Peifer coming off no-hitter: Red Land's expected starting pitcher threw a no-hitter in his last outing. Peifer, a right-hander, didn't give up a hit and struck out 10 in a quarterfinal win against Archbishop Wood. On the season, Peifer is 8-1 with a 2.09 ERA and has 79 strikeouts and 16 walks in 63 2/3 innings.

Junior shortstop David Kessler continues to lead Bethel Park in just about every offensive category while playing standout defense. Kessler is batting .470 with 27 RBIs, 26 runs scored and 16 stolen bases. All are team bests. He tripled and scored on an error in Bethel Park's walk-off win in the semifinals.

Patriots to be Bethel Park's biggest challenge: Kessler called playing Red Land his team's biggest test of the season, but said they will be ready. The Black Hawks, who lost to Franklin Regional in the WPIAL final, hope to win their first PIAA title in 33 years.

"It's awesome," he said. "Ever since I was younger seeing the older high school teams making the playoffs, I wanted to do that. Making two championships in one year, it's a dream come true. Last one we came up short. Hopefully this one we come through on top."