Published: July 11, 2013
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Abington Heights entered the District 2 Class AAA baseball playoffs with an 8-5 record, seeded seventh in the 16-team field.
But they believed in themselves, and dared to dream high.
Playing opportunistic baseball, getting strong pitching and timely hitting, the Comets embarked on a magical playoff run with four victories to claim the district crown, and two more in the state playoffs, where their season came to an end in the state semifinals, two wins shy of adding a state title trophy to go along with the one the program captured in 2009.
"The team came together and everything clicked at the right time," Abington Heights head baseball coach Bill Zalewski said. "We always thought we could be very tough when this happened."
It seemed that a different hero showed up for each of their six postseason wins, a balance that can be hard to find during the intensified pressure of the playoffs.
"The whole team clicked," Zalewski said. "They just kept picking each other up at different points with big hits, big plays and quality pitches."
The Comets' desire to play well and do what was needed to do to win went a long way in their successful playoff run that netted them a district title.
"The boys are really close and they played hard for each other," Zalewski said.
The playoff run began with a home game, as the seventh-seeded Comets hosted 10th seed West Scranton. It was a tight game the whole way, with Abington Heights pushing across single runs in the fifth and sixth innings and then staving off a late Invaders rally in the seventh to hold on for a 2-1 win.
Matt Heckman, who drove in the second run, and Kevin Elwell had two hits apiece for the Comets while Brad Smertz opened the scoring by driving in Kyle Tierney.
The momentum kicked in as the Comets visited second-seeded North Pocono in a district quarterfinal. Abington Heights got on top with a three-run third inning and pitchers Tyler Ksiazek and Dave Manasek combined on their second straight six-hitter to beat the Trojans, 3-2.
Ksiazek delivered two hits while Heckman added a two-run single off North Pocono standout Billy Nelson, who fanned 10 and did not allow an earned run but still emerged with the loss.
That victory set the stage for the long playoff run as the Comets mustered up enough offense to beat a standout pitcher on the road.
"The game against North Pocono [was the toughest district game]. Billy Nelson is a gamer and is so dominant," Zalewski said. "When we were able to get some runs off of them, we knew we could be really tough."
They needed to display that toughness and some resolve against Wyoming Area, which raced out to a 5-0 lead in the third inning.
But Abington Heights responded like champions, scoring nine runs in the top of the fourth inning and held off a charge by the sixth-seeded Warriors to reach the district final with a 9-7 victory.
After two low-scoring wins, the comeback by Abington Heights generated more momentum and self-belief, a couple of key ingredients to the Comets' recipe for playoff success.
"The nine-run inning against Wyoming Area [was a turning point]," Zalewski said. "We went down 5-0 and then came right back and scored nine. This was a huge confidence boost to our hitters."
Elwell sparked the huge inning with a double and a triple, driving in a run on each, while Dante Pasqualichio added two singles for the Comets, who bunched six of their seven hits in the inning.
In the district final held at PNC Field in Moosic, Ksiazek tossed a four-hitter and drove in the first run as the Comets posted a 5-0 win over top-seeded Valley View. Pasqualichio came up with a two-run single in a four-run seventh to back Ksiazek, who had two hits to lead the offense.
The state opener against Jersey Shore was another tight game, one that needed nine innings to determine a winner. Ksiazek was sparkling in relief of Manasek by getting 10 outs. The sophomore delivered on offense as well, scoring the game-winning run on a double by Josh Slocum in the bottom of the ninth of the 4-3 victory.
Slocum joined Ksiazek with three hits while Heckman and Smertz added two apiece and Elwell drove in two runs.
In the state quarterfinal, Abington Heights needed to rally as Tamaqua put together a four-run fourth inning to take a three-run lead.
But, as they had against Wyoming Area, the Comets struck quickly, coming up with four runs in the fifth to grab the lead and then held on for a 6-4 triumph. Pasqualichio belted a two-run single during the fifth and finished with and three runs batted in. Elwell had three hits while Sean O'Connor, Smertz and Ksiazek added two hits apiece.
The playoff run ended in the semifinals as defending state champion West York manufactured a comeback of its own with three runs in the sixth to tie the game, and two in the seventh to oust the Comets, 5-4.
Justin Porpiglia, who doubled in a run, and Slocum had two hits apiece for Abington Heights, which ended up 14-6 on the season, fueled by a special playoff run that they all will remember for the rest of their lives.
Who knows, perhaps another long playoff run could be in the future as the Comets will enter the season with high hopes.
"[We have a] Great group of returning players," Zalewski said. "We only had three seniors."
There will be big holes to fill as Elwell, Pasqualichio and Slocum will be hard to replace, but the rest of the team will be back, fortified by the knowledge that they know how to win playoff games, that they can succeed when the pressure gets raised to intense levels.