D4 tourney produces greatness

The last time District 4 did not produce a state semifinalist came six years ago. Since 2007, Loyalsock has captured two state championships, Montgomery and Canton have reached a state final, and seven teams have reached the semifinals.

You get the point, survive District 4 and one has a chance to make a run at the state’s ultimate prize. Do not be surprised if it is that way again in 2014. Here’s a closer look at the three District 4 baseball tournaments which begin this week.

Class AAA

(4 teams, champion advances)

Top-seeded Jersey Shore (18-2) is seeking its fourth consecutive championship. The Bulldogs captured their third consecutive HAC-I title earlier this season and have won a league and/or district title in nine consecutive seasons. Jersey Shore won a program-record 18 regular-season games, has won seven straight, and pounded Montoursville, 20-9, while delivering 20 hits Thursday.

Zach Miller is having a huge season, hitting seven home runs and driving in 35 runs. Christian Rishel has been outstanding in the middle of the lineup. Players like Brody Smith and Colton Potter have had big years, too, and the offense is strong top to bottom. Pitcher Travis Eiswerth threw a nine-inning shutout in last year’s 1-0 championship win over Midd-West, and Travis Bradley, Dylan Hamm and Michael Schoonmaker are a combined 13-0.

Jersey Shore faces the field’s other hottest team. No. 4 Milton has been in playoff mode the last few weeks and won three straight last week to qualify. While Jersey Shore swept Milton, the Panthers feature a strong lineup, an ace in Mark Artley and a reliable No. 2 in Corey Kriner. They played an outstanding game in a 5-2 win at Williamsport and battered playoff-bound Wellsboro, 14-1, Saturday. Milton is peaking at the right time and has title potential.

Midd-West and Shikellamy meet in the other semifinal. Midd-West started strong and has a balanced lineup. Shikellamy heated up down the stretch and has one of the field’s best players in Nick Dunn, a terrific shortstop who also threw a no-hitter against Selinsgrove.

Player to Watch-Colton Potter, Jersey Shore: The four-year starting shortstop is one of the district’s best all-around players. A slick fielder, Potter also is an offensive catalyst, hitting .435 with 20 RBIs.

Projected Final: Jersey Shore over Shikellamy

Class AA

(13 teams, 2 finalists advance)

While Loyalsock is the defending state champion, top-seeded Hughesville is the defending district champion in a field which might be among the most difficult in district history.

The Lancers have reached the final five times in the last six years, winning four times. They host No. 12 Wellsboro on Tuesday. Loyalsock (15-5) has dealt with a lot of adversity, even more than last year, but is starting to peak. The Lancers have won seven straight and have overcome several costly injuries. Kyle Datres and Jimmy Webb are having strong seasons, and freshman Andrew Malone has come up huge as a solid No. 2 pitcher. Robbie Klein returning at DH is a big boost, and Nick DiFrancesco has come on strong as has Tommy Baggett. Loyalsock seems to be hitting its stride at the right time.

Wellsboro (9-9) lost most of last year’s starters but rallied down the stretch, winning two out of three after dropping to 7-8. Sophomore second baseman Dawson Prough has been one of the district’s top hitters all year and has had two or more hits in nearly every game. Brandon Owlett is a solid pitcher who stifled Montoursville in a hard-luck 2-0 quarterfinal loss last year. He also is a weapon on the bases.

No. 1 Hughesville (16-3) has won nine straight and captured the HAC-II championship, including a sweep of Loyalsock. The Spartans overcame a midseason funk and have flourished down the stretch. All-state pitcher Justin Lambert and Tyler Mitcheltree are a nice 1-2 tandem and Cody Stryker is 6-0. Brett Reitz is an outstanding catcher and Brady Kimble is a spark at the top of the lineup in addition to being an excellent outfielder. The Spartans have a lot of experience, too, losing just two seniors from last year’s state quarterfinalist.

Also on that side of the bracket, No. 13 Montoursville travels to No. 4 Southern Columbia on Tuesday. Montoursville (9-9) made a huge run to reach the postseason once again. The Warriors did not play their second game until late April and a Major League schedule combined with a 1-5 start appeared too much to overcome. Instead, Montoursville won eight of its next 10 games and seven of those came against playoff teams. The Warriors have wins over Jersey Shore and Bloomsburg, and senior Quinton Kuntz has been outstanding. Kuntz has wins against Bloomsburg, Jersey Shore and Milton and is also hitting a team-best .417.

No. 4 Southern Columbia (14-4) reached last year’s semifinals and is the only team to beat Bloomsburg starting pitcher Colton Hock this season. Left-hander John Wilson is a solid pitcher and the offense is deep, too. Southern split the HAC-III title with Bloomsburg, winning it for a second consecutive year.

No. 7 South Williamsport (12-6) has lost three straight, but has had a nice season after losing seven starters from last year’s 14-win team. Left-hander Billy Rummings is one of the district’s best pitchers and threw a two-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts against Montoursville in his last start. Anthony Caruso and Riley Thomas have had big offensive seasons, and Carter Alexander has had a breakout year, sparking the lineup from the lead-off position.

South faces No. 10 Mansfield (10-8) on Tuesday. The Tigers opened 10-2 before dropping their last six. They have done a nice job for a team replacing most of last year’s starters, and were a few plays from being 13-5, losing three one-run games in the last two weeks. Mansfield won 10 of 11 at one point and overcame multiple-run deficits three times in the last three innings to beat Wellsboro, Athens and Troy.

No. 2 Bloomsburg (16-4) waits for the Mansfield-South winner and has won seven straight. It features Stanford-bound pitcher Colton Hock, one of the state’s best. Hock has posted double-digit strikeout totals nearly every time out, stifling offenses throughout District 4. Colby Klingerman threw a no-hitter last week and Ricky Klingerman and Evan Ball are solid hitters.

No. 11 Troy (11-9) is coming on strong and hammered Danville its regular-season finale. First-round opponent East Juniata has a good core back from last year’s 15-win team. No. 8 Central Columbia won six straight games earlier this season, has beaten both Bloomsburg and Southern and edged South, 2-1, last week.

No. 3 Athens (15-4) has a strong pitcher in Tyler Forbes, captured the NTL-I championship and gave Hughesville a serious scare in last year’s opening round, losing 1-0.

Tournament Sleeper-Towanda: The No. 9 Black Knights (12-7), who travel to Central on Tuesday, were an error away from possibly beating Loyalsock in last year’s quarterfinals and have a lot of those players back. They have three good pitchers in Tristan James, Sawyer Strope and Zach Place and have won seven of their last eight games while displaying championship potential.

Best first-round game-Montoursville at Southern: This is a matchup one would normally expect to see in the semifinals or championship. Two tradition-laden programs go at it and it is hard to believe that one of these teams will not be advancing.

Player to Watch-Tyler Mitcheltree: The senior shortstop/pitcher has come up big throughout the season, giving Hughesville whatever it needs. The lead-off hitter ignites the lineup, plays good defense and has thrown well down the stretch. Mitcheltree played well in last year’s postseason and has a lot of big-game experience.

Projected First-round winners: Southern, Loyalsock, Troy, South, Towanda

Projected Semifinals: Loyalsock over Hughesville; Bloomsburg over Athens

Projected Final: Bloomsburg over Loyalsock

Class A

(6 teams, champion advances)

The last three champions in this field have reached the semifinals with Montgomery and Canton reaching the state championship in 2012 and 2013.

While top-seeded Canton (18-2) lost some good players from that team, it has its top three pitchers, Chase Pepper, Garrett Wesneski and John Bowman back. Pepper and Bowman threw well throughout the season, and Wesneski has been good down the stretch. Canton has won seven straight and ended its regular season with a nice 6-3 win over Towanda. The Warriors have won 40 games the past two seasons. The Warriors face the winner of Wednesday’s Montgomery at Muncy showdown.

Muncy (13-6) dropped a 2-1 heart-breaker to Canton in eight innings in last year’s semifinals and has done well despite having just three seniors. Ken Koch is one of the district’s best pitchers and has struck out 35 in his last 16 2/3 innings. The hard-throwing right-hander has beaten Montgomery and Southern Columbia and had eight strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings against Hughesville. Maurice Brown and Dalton Smith are strong at the top of the lineup and T.J. Moyle is an excellent catcher and Levi Myers has had a breakout year. If Muncy does not boot the ball around it has championship potential.

Montgomery (13-7) is seeking its fourth consecutive championship appearance and is one of the field’s hottest teams, winning nine of its last 11 games. Marcus Bartlett (5-2) has been dominant in the season’s second half, allowing five hits or fewer in his last four starts. Dylan Gordon has won four games and threw a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts in his last appearance. Zach Shadle has hit well down the stretch and Montgomery is good at manufacturing runs.

No. 3 Bucktail (11-5) is having its best season since 2003 and made a huge early-season statement when it beat Canton, 6-5, on the road. Chuck Probst is an excellent pitcher and is 5-0 this season and also leading the team in batting average. Probst is a five-tool player and Trent Risley is coming off an 8 for 9 performance in Saturday’s doubleheader sweep at Sullivan County. Tony Saltsman has won four games and is a big hitter in cleanup spot.

No. 6 St. John Neumann (10-10) split two games with Bucktail earlier this year, winning 17-4 and losing, 4-2. The Knights won three of their last four to qualify and also beat Montgomery. Ryan Reid is a strong pitcher and one of the field’s premier hitters while Richard Allen anchors the infield and provides a spark at the top of the order. Noah Beiter has helped Neumann reach the playoffs two of the last three years and is a consistent hitter who also is a versatile defender.

No. 2 Line Mountain (13-3) features a strong lineup that can put runs up in a hurry. The Eagles defeated EJ, 17-16, two weeks ago and have three players hitting .423 or higher. Nearly every hitter in the lineup is batting over .320.

Tournament Sleeper-Neumann: The Knights were the last team in but should not be counted out. Neumann lost three one-run games and has a quality lineup, especially from top to middle. A lot of these players were on the basketball team that reached the state semifinals, so there is a lot of big-game experience there.

Best first-round game-Montgomery at Muncy: What is not to like about the Old Shoe Rivals meeting in the playoffs? At least one of these teams has appeared in all but two district finals since 2003 and they split two games this year, with the home team winning each time. They also have split two playoff games since 2005.

Player to Watch-Thomas Goetz, Montgomery: The junior shortstop is hitting as well as anyone in the field right now. A three-year starter, Goetz is 17 for 29 in his last eight games and has had at least two hits in six of those contests. Goetz has plenty of big-game experience and sets a tone near the top of the order.

Projected Semifinals: Canton over Montgomery; Line Mountain over Neumann

Projected Final: Canton over Line Mountain

Dr. Masse’s Top Five

1. Jersey Shore (18-2); 2. Hughesville (16-3); 3. Loyalsock (15-5); 4. Canton (18-2); 5. Montgomery (13-7)

Player of the Week

Ryan Reid,

St. John Neumann

The junior did all he could to help Neumann reach districts. Reid threw a two-hitter in a 4-2 win over Millville, and also went 6 for 7 with two doubles, three RBIs and three runs in must-win games over Millville and Northeast Bradford.

Chris Masse can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3113, or by email at cmasse@sungazette.com.