SLIPPERY ROCK - Despite losing only one game throughout the regular season and up to the semifinal round of the District 10 Class 3A playoffs, Franklin's baseball team had a tendency at times to get off to a bit of a slow start in games.
And that appeared to be the case again on Monday afternoon against Hickory in the D-10 championship game at Slippery Rock University's Jack Critchfield Park, as coach Brian Schmidt's Knights found themselves in a 2-0 hole after one inning of play.
But, that all changed with one swing of the bat in the top of the second inning as Kaden Keely launched a two-run home run over the wall in right field to get the Knights' offense in gear and they never looked back in recording a 12-2, six-inning victory over the Hornets, capturing the district crown and earning a berth in the PIAA playoffs in the process.
"It feels good," Schmidt said about his team winning the District 10 title. "I was happier about the first one we won, don't get me wrong, I'm excited. But, I'm ready to go a little further and I think the players are, too."
After failing to score in the first five innings in the quarterfinals against Greenville and coming up empty in the first three frames in the semis versus Titusville, the Knights found themselves trailing early on as they were put down in order by starting pitcher Hayden Gallagher in the top of the first while the Hornets got right to work in the home half of the frame.
Leadoff hitter Clay Wiesen opened with a clean single right up the middle and, after a flyout, Cam Whalen orchestrated a walk before Andrew Gay singled in Wiesen with the first run of the game. After an error and a wild pitch, Whalen came in to score for a 2-0 lead.
The game changed in a hurry, though, in the top of the second as Austin Rhoads led off with a walk before Keely cranked a blast over the 315-mark in right field to quickly tie the game at 2-2 and turn the momentum in Franklin's favor.
"It was huge," Schmidt said of Keely's home run. "Because we didn't play our best against Greenville or Titusville and these guys (Hickory) aren't the type of team that you want to have a slow start against. Up and down their order is tough and they are great hitting team. So, just to tie the game up there with a home run like that was huge."
Keely's blast seemed to wake up the Knights' bats and they continued their assault for the rest of the game, plating three runs in each of the third, fourth and fifth frames before ending the game early with one run in the sixth.
But, the home run not only seemed to have an affect on Franklin's offense, it also appeared to have an impact on starting pitcher Ian Haynes and on the play of the Knights' defense as well.
After giving up two runs on two hits and two walks in the top of the first frame,Haynes found his groove and retired the next 10 batters he faced before David Greensburg led off the fifth by reaching on an error. By that time, though, the Knights had built an 11-2 lead.
Haynes followed that up by setting down the next five batters in order before surrendering a two-out walk to Asher Patton in the bottom of the sixth. Haynes, though, struck out Nick Osborne to end the game. He finished with a two-hitter while fanning six and walking three. He did, however, get some help from some stellar plays from his defense, especially in the outfield.
"Ian didn't start out like he wanted. Those top-of-the-order guys for Hickory are tough and they set the table in the first inning," Schmidt said. "But, when Kaden hit the home run and we started getting those plays made in the outfield like Kaden's diving catch in center or the one where Carson Wible ran a mile for in right, he really settled down and pitched like he can."
With the game tied 2-2 and having Haynes and the defense firing on all cylinders, the offense began to really take over in the third.
After a strikeout and a popup, Connor Rakow got things started with a walk and Rhoads followed with a double down the right-field line to plate Rakow, who was running on the pitch, all the way from first base to give the Knights the lead for good at 3-2. Keely followed with another walk before Haynes and Marc Knox came through with back-to-back RBI singles for a 5-2 edge.
Franklin continued its torrid pace in the fourth and fifth as they plated six runs on six hits to open up an 11-2 advantage.
Wible opened the fourth with a single and Zach Taylor also reached base after beating out a bunt for another single. Tyus Wood then sacrificed the two over one base before Rakow drilled a two-run double that hit off the bottom of the wall in left field. Rhoads concluded the fourth with an RBI single to score Rakow.
In the fifth, Knox led off with a walk and Kolton Banfi sacrificed him over to second. Wible then delivered a run-scoring double before Taylor put down another bunt that led to him reaching after Hickory unsuccessfully tried to nab Wible out at third. Wood followed with a chopping single down the third-base line to score both Wible and Taylor.
Franklin got its final run in the sixth as back-to-back walks from Haynes and Knox led to Banfi's run-scoring single.
The Knights, who improved to 21-1 and increased their winning streak to 20 straight, will face the No. 3 seed out of District 7 in the first round of the PIAA playoffs on Monday at a site and time to be determined.
"I'm happy today, but I'm not satisfied by any means and I don't think any of our seniors are as well," Schmidt said. "Early on, we saw that we had the team to make a state run. These guys were in the eighth grade the last time we made it to states, so it's been awhile, and we're happy to be back and we'll take it one game at a time now."