By STEFAN GESTWICKI
OBSERVER Sports Reporter
GOWANDA - The biggest stage. The most bitter of rivals. Last-inning heroics.
OBSERVER?Photo by Stefan Gestwicki
Members of the Fredonia Hillbillies celebrate after winning in the bottom of the seventh inning of Thursday’s?Section 6 Class B championship game at Gowanda against Dunkirk.
This is what high school baseball is all about.
Fredonia fought back from a 6-2 deficit and Weston Ley capped the rally with a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh to give the Hillbillies an 8-7 walk-off win over arch-rival Dunkirk to secure the Section 6 Class B championship, Thursday at Gowanda Central School.
"What a great feeling," Fredonia coach Vince Gullo said. "This is such a rewarding win. We had to overcome three league opponents."
Trailing, 7-5, and down to its final three outs, Fredonia's comeback started when A.J. Riforgiat ripped a single to center to lead off the seventh against Dunkirk's new pitcher Clayton Cieslewicz. Nick Hart followed with a walk to bring the winning run to the plate.
Trent Thompson dropped down a bunt, but Dunkirk's defense struggled with it and Cieslewicz threw the ball past first base as pinch-runner Nick Johnston raced around to score.
"We didn't misplay anything until the bunt," Dunkirk coach Frank Jagoda said. "We practice that every day. That's not where it all starts. We had them on the ropes a couple times."
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With runners on second and third, Dunkirk opted to intentionally walk Zack Buckley to set up the force play at the plate.
The move backfired when Connor Farnham worked a walk to force in the tying run. Cieslewicz struggled to find the zone and Ley drew the walk that sent the Hillbillies into hysterics - and the Far West Regionals.
"We used that formula before where Clayton came in late," Jagoda explained. "Clayton really wanted to gut it out. His leg was hurt. That's the true senior leader that he is. He had an outstanding season. All my seniors put forth a great effort today."
The Orange and Black came out strong and looked every bit the favorite.
The first five batters in Fredonia's batting order reached base leading off the bottom of the first against Dunkirk senior Kevin Holmes.
Hart walked and Thompson singled to set the stage for Zack Buckley's double to deep center field. Hart scored easily, but Thompson was gunned down at the plate on a strong relay throw by Dunkirk.
Connor Farnham brought Buckley home with another double, this one deep in the right-center field gap.
The Hillbillies loaded the bases with two outs, but Holmes was able to tip-toe out of danger by inducing a fly ball to end the inning.
After the first-inning hiccup, Holmes shut down the high-powered Fredonia offense with three consecutive scoreless innings.
"Dunkirk's got ball players," Gullo raved. "The pitching performance from Holmes was big."
Meanwhile, the Dunkirk bats started to heat up.
With one out in the top of the second, Holmes drew a walk and Josh Mleczko singled against Thompson. Both runners came home when Max Schrantz crushed a double to left-center.
The Marauders gained their first lead of the game in the third inning when Cieslewicz walked, stole second and came home when Fredonia couldn't field Ryan Ruiz's ground ball with two outs.
Already up 3-2, Dunkirk didn't take its foot off the accelerator and scored another pair of runs in the fourth.
Schrantz and Pat LaMattina connected on consecutive one-out singles before Kevin Burns' RBI single scored pinch-runner Miguel Fred.
Dunkirk again took advantage of Fredonia's sloppy defense when Brett Skubis, running for LaMattina, scored on another two-out error by the Hillbillies' infield.
Mleczko pushed Dunkirk's lead to 6-2 with his RBI single in the fifth against Farnham, on in relief of Thompson.
"We had some real good at-bats," Jagoda added. "We scored six runs. We don't usually score six runs."
Thompson lasted four innings, allowed five runs on five hits and struck out five.
"He got us through four innings," Gullo said of Thompson. "We didn't play very good defense behind him. I'm glad Connor came in. He won the game for us, throwing strikes."
With the deficit growing larger by the inning and quickly running out of outs, Fredonia finally put something together in the bottom of the fifth.
With one out, Jude Gardner singled and Brett Lutz drew a walk. Holmes got Cam Voss to fly out for the second out, but Riforgiat legged out an infield single to load the bases and Hart punched a two-run single to center field to close the gap, 6-4.
Fredonia continued to chip away at the lead with another run in the sixth as Buckley singled, stole second and scored on Ley's RBI single.
Holmes pitched six strong innings, allowing five runs on 10 hits. He only struck out one and let his defense work behind him.
Through six innings, Fredonia stranded 12 base runners.
With the once-comfortable lead down to one, Dunkirk scratched out an insurance run in the top of the seventh. Mleczko ripped his third single of the game to lead off the frame. He went to second on a passed ball and to third on Schrantz's single. LaMattina lifted the first pitch of the next at-bat deep into center field for a sacrifice fly to give Dunkirk a 7-5 lead.
Farnham worked around another Fredonia error to keep the deficit at two before the Hillbillies amazing rally in the bottom half of the inning.
"I give my guys lots of credit for sticking in there and overcoming that deficit," Gullo said. "We capitalized on (Dunkirk's) one mistake.
"I also give my coaching staff a lot of credit," he added. Between Coaches Thompson, Smith, Bongiovanni and Flores, they kept everybody focused. They kept everybody's head in it."
The game marked the last in the high school careers of six Dunkirk seniors. Mleczko, LaMattina, Brandon Torrance, Holmes, Cieslewicz and Schrantz all left a lasting impression on Marauders baseball.
"I couldn't be prouder of the season we put together," Jagoda said. "We didn't have a real home-run hitter. We didn't have a lot of different things. We learned how to win the way baseball should be won.
"I'd like to congratulate Coach Gullo and his kids," Jagoda continued. "I wish them the best of luck. They could have folded. They were down 6-2. We put the pressure on them. We had them thinking and they thought otherwise. I'd like to wish them the best of luck as they move on."
Fredonia will play the Section 5 champion Tuesday. Opponent and location are to be determined.