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Mount Carmel's first district title "actually really special"

May 30—One of the Mount Carmel baseball team's warm-up shirts was emblazoned with the rallying cry "Bowman or Bust," because you don't play at Williamsport's storied venue these days unless a district championship is at stake.

Just getting to the district final became almost as big a goal as winning it for the Red Tornadoes, none of whom had seen either feat accomplished in their lifetime.

So their victory celebration on the Bowman Field diamond after Saturday's 3-1 win over Warrior Run had threads of pride and reverence intertwined with the joy and satisfaction.

"It feels amazing," said junior first baseman Clarke Cartwright. "I can't even explain it. Maybe in like a week I'll be able to explain it. It just feels great. You got chills and everything."

"It's awesome," said junior shortstop Jonny Morgante. "No one's ever done this before, and it's actually really special."

For a program that had never won a district crown, there was no greater motivator. However, for this group of Red Tornadoes in particular, getting to the final was more than half the battle.

The squad's half-dozen seniors — led by four-year contributors Gavin Lasko and Jonas Bettleyon — were beaten in the District 4 Class 3A semifinals in each of the last three years. That extended Mount Carmel's string of semifinal losses to five seasons, beginning with Brenton Eades' first season as head coach in 2018. The 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program's dearth of district final appearances can't be laid at Eades' feet, though. Not when the its only other title game berth was in 1983, when 57-year-old former Major Leaguer Frank Bolick was a Mount Carmel sophomore. That was four decades ago, and there have been three more Red Tornadoes drafted in the last 20 years who never had the opportunity to play for a district crown.

"Definitely a lot of great baseball players," said Eades. "I mean, I've coached some amazing baseball players. Geez, (Thomas) Schultz and (Tommy) Reisinger just got drafted. Then you obviously have greats like (Dave) Shinskie and Bolick and (Bob) Zavarick. To tell me this scrappy group of kids, just a roster of 22, actually brought home the banner and the trophy to the school?

"It just goes to show if you're scrappy and you want it and you work hard, it's there."

This season unfolded much like the previous one, from opening with four consecutive wins in a 7-1 start to boasting a 10-3 mark in late April. Mount Carmel ultimately entered the district tournament as the No. 2 seed and was bounced by Central Columbia in the semis. It was the Red Tornadoes' second straight semifinal loss to the Blue Jays, and their second loss to Central as the No. 2 seed in five years (2019).

So there was plenty of reason for concern when they once again earned the district's second seed and a semifinal date with Central Columbia. Adding to the degree of difficulty was a weather-related stoppage that halted a third-inning rally and forced Mount Carmel to substitute Bettleyon for ace pitcher Drew Yagodzinskie the following day when play resumed.

Bettleyon pitched 3 2/3 innings of one-hit ball, and the Red Tornadoes tacked on five runs to overcome their Central whammy, 9-2, and advance to the district final.

"We knew we were going to be here," junior pitcher Noah Shimko said Saturday. "We've had that confidence since last year. We knew we weren't losing that many guys. We were keeping our two aces, and our hitting would still be phenomenal. No matter who doubted us, we knew we'd be that team on top."

Yagodzinskie, the latest standout right-hander in Mount Carmel's remarkable 2000s lineage that includes Dave Langton and Mike Domaleski, was brilliant against Warrior Run in the championship game. He struck out nine in six innings of one-run ball, throwing strikes on 61 of 93 pitches. He threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 26 Defenders he faced, working just four three-ball counts and walking only one.

"Probably the best I've ever seen him pitch," said Morgante. "He threw strikes, and we made plays."

The atmosphere, venue and stakes certainly enhanced the performance.

"He was the best pitcher we've seen this year," said Warrior Run coach Derrick Zechman, whose team hadn't faced Yagodzinskie in two Heartland Athletic Conference-Division III regular-season meetings. "I thought for us to get this game we'd have to chase him, we'd have to get his pitch count up. I thought, overall, (we had) quality at-bats, but we had a lot of strikeouts.

"I said the winner of this game can get on a run. I wouldn't be surprised if Mount Carmel puts on a run. They have great pitching, and if Yags throws the ball like he did (Saturday), it's going to be tough for anyone to beat them."

Yagodzinskie improved to 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA in the district final. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is nearly 3-to-1 in a team-high 41 innings (68-26). Bettleyon (4-1, 1.21) and Cartwright (2-0, 1.27) round out the starting staff, while the 6-foot-5 Shimko and freshman Jace Stever are a strong righty-lefty duo in the bullpen.

Lasko (.400 avg., 17 RBIs) and Morgante (.361, 15) anchor a batting order that produces six-plus runs per game.

"I'd never want to play with a different team other than this team," Yagodzinskie said. "I love them so much."

The Red Tornadoes (14-5) begin state tournament play Monday against the District 2 champion — either Holy Redeemer or Mid-Valley, who resume a suspended game today.

Every rung on the state playoff ladder marks a first for Mount Carmel, which in itself is noteworthy at a school with such a rich athletics tradition.

"For the younger kids, I just hope it goes to show that, 'Hey, listen, when we get there we could do it,'" said Eades. "If you think of all the greats, like, 'Oh, he didn't win one,' or 'He didn't win one,' now we've showed them that if you come here and work hard, we're as good as anyone in the district."

"(The district title) was definitely a goal, but definitely not our final goal," said Morgante. "We want to win the state championship."