'Emptying the tank': North Star to battle defending PIAA champion Bald Eagle Area in 2A semifinal

Over the past couple weeks, the North Star baseball team has elevated its collective level of play.

Losing in the District 5 Class 2A championship game in back-to-back years has motivated the Cougars to reach higher as they have advanced to the PIAA semifinals for the first time since 2012.

District 5-8 Class 2A winner North Star (21-4) battles District 6 and defending state champion Bald Eagle Area (23-2) at 3 p.m. Monday at Mount Aloysius College with a trip to the championship game on the line.

“I’ve always wanted them to believe in themselves” North Star coach Jake Klukaszewski said. “I feel like now they really are seeing the product of that.

“Just playing with confidence and playing for each other. Just trying to elevate their games in these higher-state games, but also just treating it as every other game. We try not to get too excited. That’s really, I think, been the difference.”

North Star played at Mount Aloysius in the 2023 WestPAC championship game.

Monday’s victor will face Tri-Valley or Wyalusing Valley at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Penn State in the title game.

The Cougars, winners of the Inter-County Conference West Division, defeated Serra Catholic 5-2 and Redbank Valley 4-0 in their first two PIAA triumphs.

Against Redbank Valley, senior left-handed pitcher Cayden Turner took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. The Penn State Behrend recruit struck out seven batters and allowed one hit in 62/3 innings.

Senior right-hander Vance Kimmel notched a strikeout in the seventh. Turner added two hits. Glendon Griffith, Braden Livingston, Austin Orris and Connor Yoder each drove in a run.

Seniors Griffith, Kimmel, Livingston, Turner, Nolan Weible and Yoder have led the way for the determined Cougars, who have outscored their opponents 187-58.

“I think they came in with a chip on their shoulders, especially after losing two district championships,” Klukaszewski said. “I think they realize this is their final ride, so they’re giving it all they have. They’re emptying the tank. They’re just trying to stay focused on one game at a time. We’re just trying to stay hot at this point in the year because if you do that, anything is possible.

“I’m proud of their leadership and I’m proud of how they’ve been performing.”

North Star has two viable starting pitching options in Kimmel (8-0, 0.00 ERA, 61 strikeouts in 37 innings) and Turner (7-1, 1.34, 66 punchouts in 571/3 frames.

Turner is hitting .609 with seven doubles, five triples, four home runs, 42 runs and 27 RBIs without striking out once.

Yoder is batting .560 with five doubles, one triple, two home runs and 26 RBIs. Griffith has 22 RBIs, and Livingston has stolen 17 bases.

Bald Eagle Area, a member of the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, presents a potent challenge for North Star. Winners of 16 straight games, the Eagles have outscored their opponents by a 260-73 margin. They beat 11 opponents by 10 or more runs. Their only losses came to Philipsburg-Osceola and Somerset in April.

In the postseason, the Eagles beat Cambria Heights 5-1, Mount Union 11-3 and West Branch 13-3 in District 6. Bald Eagle Area topped Mount Union in the 2023 District 6 and PIAA title games, finishing 22-4. The Eagles responded with triumphs over Lakeview (9-3) and Moniteau (10-1) in the PIAA playoffs.

“They do not mistakes and they do not beat themselves,” Klukaszewski said. “They are extremely well-coached. One through nine, they are a solid lineup, so there’s no really easy outs. We’re just going to have to put our best effort forward, maybe we can score one more run than them and get 21 outs. Anything is possible. They’re the No. 1 team in the state and they’re the defending state champions for a reason.”

Bald Eagle Area senior Weston McClain is expected to start. The right-hander is 12-0 with a 1.49 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 75 innings.

“He likes to throw fastballs, sliders, curveballs, changeups,” Klukaszewski said. “He locates them all for strikes, so he’s going to be tough.”

Four Eagles are hitting over .400 in seniors Gavin Burns (.481, two homers), Kaden Burns (.447, two homers) and Kahale Burns (Mansfield signee, .482, 15 stolen bases, 13 doubles, three homers) and junior Carson Nagle (11 doubles, five homers, 40 RBIs. Senior Tayten Yoder, a Lock Haven signee, has blasted four home runs and driven in 33 runs.

Against Moniteau, McClain struck out eight batters and allowed three hits and unearned run in seven innings. Yoder tripled and drove in three runs. Kaden Burns plated three runs.

In the first round, Kahale Burns went 4-for-4 with a double, two home runs and three RBIs. Senior Camron Watkins provided four RBIs and a double.

Playing in the more rugged Inter-County Conference has paid dividends for the Cougars.

“It definitely forces you to elevate your game because if you don’t, you’re not in these positions in the playoffs,” Klukaszewski said. “We’ve had some really tough games throughout the year, games where we were battle-tested. I think all of that experience together is really good. It was a very tough conference. It forced us to kind of look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what we were doing well and what we weren’t doing well. We’ve been trying to address that and just playing fundamental baseball. Usually when you do that, good things happen.”

Jake Oswalt is a copy editor for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @TheWizOfOz11.