By Frank Rizzo
BINGHAMTON They practiced what they believed, this 2011 edition of the Livingston Manor Wildcats.
And their belief was simple: They were the best Class D baseball team in the state.
They proved it on Sunday with a decisive 13-0 win over Section II champ Loudonville Christian School at Binghamton’s NYSEG Stadium.
Junior Mike Mills threw a two-hitter and at the final out fell to the well-manicured ground, open-mouthed stunned. Teammates quickly joined him to complete the “victory pileup.”
Afterward, he cried unabashedly.
“I didn’t think I would cry, but the emotion was too much,” Mills said of the victory delayed but not denied: the game had started Saturday at nearby Johnson City High School, shortened to three innings by storms and heavy rain, and completed at the professional confines of the Mets’ AA team.
On Saturday, Mills had pitched four scoreless innings in the comeback 7-4 semifinal win over Section V’s Lyndonville.
Through three innings in the final he kept the Eagles (19-3) hitless as the Wildcats used a six-run second to take a commanding 7-0 lead before the storms came. Four miscues by their opponents helped the cause.
The overnight rest undoubtedly helped, but Mills said in any case he was ready to shoulder the burden on Sunday.
“I felt good, I had the energy to go all the way,” he said.
He struck out eight in the final and for the tourney finished with 13 strikeouts in 11 scoreless innings while yielding just four hits.
Mills was asked if he feared some unscouted team from the hinterlands who might prove formidable.
“There was no fear,” Mills said. “We’ve been here before… we’ve seen the other teams (and) we’ve competed all year.”
A large contingent of Manor fans and parents milled around, savoring the victory presentation and championship feeling. Among them were members of the Manor softball repeat state champs, and softball co-coach Kevin Clifford, whose championship tee-shirt back read: “We didn’t come this far, to only come this far.”
It was a sentiment Manor baseball coach Jeff Loeffler agreed with.
“We were here in ’09, a lot of them were freshmen,” Loeffler said of the 11-1 semifinal loss to Schenectady Christian. “They knew the deal, knew what to expect. In ’09 we were just satisfied to be here. [This time] we knew we were the best team, and our goal was not just to get here, but to win two games.”
Loudonville Christian had used its best pitcher, Alex Malossi, in the 5-3 semifinal win over Brookfield.
“You could tell our players were spent after that game… we should have gone home,” said coach Tim Phelps, lamenting that his team could not end its best year in a more competitive fashion.
Part of it, of course, he ascribed to Mills.
“He was by far the best pitcher we faced this season,” said the 11-year coach, whose teams, he noted, had never been shut out. In addition, his squad batted over .350 this year and his staff had an ERA below 3.00.
But the Eagles ran into a team of destiny.
“We played our best ball [in the playoffs], peaked at the right time,” said Loeffler “It was a nice playoff run. We made the plays we needed, pitched well and had the clutch hits.”
“It wasn’t an easy road,” said Loeffler, a 1992 graduate of Kingston High School. “We had to play a lot of bigger schools.”
The Wildcats were part of a two-team Class D division, along with Chapel Field.
“From the first day of practice (March 7) we were talking about winning this,” said Mills. “There’s no better feeling.”
No panic at deficit
Manor players expressed no sense of panic when the Wildcats fell behind 4-0, to Lyndonville in the semi.
Mills had kept the Section V (Buffalo area) champs scoreless on two hits over four innings. In the fifth, Brandon Smith relieved, and control problems (one run scored on a passed ball, another on a bases-loaded walk) along with two singles and a sac fly put the Wildcats in the hole. The Tigers added another in the sixth.
But Manor finally “broke the code” off starter Ryan Lilley’s off-speed stuff, and erupted for six runs in the sixth to chase the previously unbeaten hurler (81). The big hits were a pair of two-run singles by Joe Fredenburg and Andrew Cummings.
“It was only his second varsity loss,” according to Lyndonville (174) coach Shane Price. “We had to play four games in seven days to get here and our bodies and arms were taxed.”