JAMESTOWN - At the beginning of the year, the Gowanda Panthers knew they had a special team.
With the realignment of leagues, Gowanda coach Tim Smith wasn't sure just how good his team was and wouldn't have a good barometer until the playoffs.
So far, his Panthers have passed with flying colors as they captured the Section 6 Class B-2 championship Saturday with an 8-1 victory over Cleveland Hill at Russel Diethrick Park.
OBSERVER?Photo by Lisa Monacelli
Gowanda's Chase Williams, left, tags out Cleveland Hill’s Zach Lewandowski on a stolen base attempt during Saturday night’s Section 6 Class B-2 baseball title game, at Diethrick Park, in Jamestown.
"It's exciting," Smith said. "This was obviously a target for us. We felt we short-changed ourselves in the playoffs last year. We talked last year since everyone was coming back as this being the goal for the next 365 days. The kids worked at it from the day after in summer league all the way through. They didn't take a day off. They have earned the opportunity to be here and this championship."
Throughout the playoffs, Gowanda's main Achilles heel has been stranding runners on base early in games.
Fortunately for the Panthers, they were able to cash in with two runs in the first inning as they got things going with a Ryan Boutelle one-out single and quickly stealing second. He scored on a Matt Kruszka hit to right field. The Cleveland-Hill right fielder lost the ball in the sun, allowing Kruszka to make it to second base. He scored one batter later as Chase Williams ripped an RBI single for a 2-0 lead.
"It was good because what you don't want to do is let anyone hang around," Smith said.
While Gowanda starter Carter Benton was cruising, so too was Cleveland Hill pitcher Aaron Phillips, who finished with 13 strikeouts and allowed seven hits. Phillips gave up three hits in the first inning, but did not issue another base hit until the sixth when Gowanda exploded for four hits and five runs to put the game away.
"(Phillips) was outstanding," said Smith, noting Phillips will be playing baseball at St. Bonaventure next year. "We had trouble in the first few innings. We stayed patient and he started to tire out and we got on him."
The Eagles' only real threat came in the top of the second as Dylan Loufran belted a one-out double down the third-base line and Jarrod Branigan had a single to put runners on the corners. However, Joe Weber hit into a textbook 6-4-3 inning-ending double play.
It was the first of two double plays the Panthers turned.
"Our defense was great," Smith said. "One thing we continue to preach is we have to have good defense. In big games, you have to make plays. I don't think anyone is nervous out there. If the ball is coming to them, they are looking to make the play. It was a solid job by our defense."
Gowanda added to its lead in the fourth inning as Chase Williams hit a liner back to Cleveland-Hill pitcher Aaron Phillips and his throw to first was wild, allowing Williams to advance all the way to third. Williams scored on an RBI sacrifice fly off the bat of Cole Dailey for a 3-0 advantage.
From the third inning on, Benton faced just two batters over the minimum as he retired the side in order in the fourth and fifth inning. Originally, Smith was going to give the nod to Joey Kruszka.
"Joey wasn't ready today," Smith said. "I was planing on going with Joey. Carter knew the situation and knew if Joe couldn't go, he was going to get the ball. He has pitched in some big games this year. I had all the confidence in the world giving him the ball."
The Panthers put the game away in the sixth inning as Cole Dailey hit a bases-loaded, two-run single and Josh Mitchell followed with a two-run double for a 7-0 advantage. Mitchell scored on an error to round out the scoring.
The Eagles plated a run in the seventh as Austin Baker scored on a sacrifice fly from Loufran.
Matt Kruszka led Gowanda's offense with two hits, including an RBI double and a run scored.
The win sets up a Class B crossover showdown with defending state champions Fredonia on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Diethrick Park.
"I wanted to win this and whoever was going to be there, was going to be there," Smith said about playing an old foe and former league rivals. "The fact it is Fredonia brings us back to the old league as it was. I am thrilled with the matchup and I look forward to it. They are a great team and they keep going. We have all the respect for them, but we will play our hardest to try and get the victory."