Just a few days ago, Hempfield Area's dream of advancing to the WPIAL baseball championship game for the first time was extremely close to becoming reality.
On Tuesday, those hopes expired in a semifinal loss, but the Spartans still have an opportunity to accomplish another first -- qualify for the PIAA playoffs.
A spot in the state tournament will be on the line when Hempfield (19-4) takes on Pine-Richland (17-5) in the WPIAL Class AAAA third-place consolation game next Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at W&J Field.
Hempfield, the No. 3 seed, had won nine games in a row before falling to No. 2 North Allegheny, 3-0, in a semifinal at Matulevic Field in Shaler. It was Hempfield's second loss to North Allegheny this season. The Spartans lost by the identical score April 20 at North Allegheny. The Tigers also defeated the Spartans, 10-0, in last season's WPIAL quarterfinals.
On Tuesday, North Allegheny scored the game's first run on Jimmy Divosevic's two-out single in the top of the first inning. The score remained that way until the sixth, when Justin Datillo and J.T. Zeitler notched run-scoring singles to give the Tigers a few insurance runs.
The way North Allegheny pitcher Mitch Machi was dealing, the three runs were more than enough for the Tigers. Machi, who also beat Hempfield in those previous two matchups, gave up only two hits in seven innings.
Despite the low hit total, Hempfield had several scoring chances, but just couldn't come through with a clutch hit. One of the issues was that the Spartans often got the wheels in motion with two outs. Eight Hempfield batters reached base -- three on walks and three on errors -- but all but one of them got aboard with two outs. The Spartans left two runners on base in the third and fifth innings.
"The problem was we got everything rolling with two outs," Hempfield coach Tim Buzzard said. "We weren't leading off innings with hits. We just couldn't get a big, two-out hit."
Hempfield senior Zach Martinelli, who has been outstanding this season, pitched well yet again. Martinelli gave up just six hits, all on singles. In his previous start, Martinelli fired a one-hitter and struck out 18 in a 2-0 win against Fox Chapel in the first round.
"He threw great," Buzzard said. "They scored one in the first, but then he cruised in innings two through five."
Buzzard said that North Allegheny scoring the early run didn't get his team flustered, but he sensed that the final two runs might end up being the backbreaker.
"Obviously you want to jump out and score first, but it wasn't a concern for us when they did," Buzzard said. "We knew it was going to be a 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 type of game. Our kids didn't get down. We weren't really too concerned, but when they got the second and third runs we knew it was going to be tough to come back."
Hempfield now must refocus and attempt to keep its season going by getting past Pine-Richland. The No. 4 seed Rams lost to two-time defending champion and No. 1 seed Seneca Valley, 6-0, in the semifinals. The Rams are led by junior second baseman Daane Berezo and senior pitcher Marcus Colella.
It's the second meeting this season between the teams. Hempfield won at Pine-Richland, 4-3, in a non-section game on May 7. Hempfield raced to a 3-0 lead, before Pine-Richland rallied to tie the score. Hempfield scored the winning run in the seventh. Senior Luke Fox, senior Nathan Mori, junior Joey DeFloria and senior Greg Martin drove in Hempfield's runs.
"They're a very good team," Buzzard said. "We played them in a one-run game. They're very tough."
Buzzard's team is a resilient bunch. The Spartans followed up each of their three previous losses with impressive wins, and hope to do the same one more time.
"It will be a do-or-die game," Buzzard said Tuesday evening. "I'm going to give the guys a day off, and then we'll regroup and go at it again."