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Class A Panthers Fall in NYS Finals, 5-1, to Columbia
By Ray Gallagher, Examiner Sports Editor @Directrays
There was an early air of confidence in the Walter Panas dugout at the NYSPHSAA Class A Baseball Championships, starting with Friday’s Final 4 encounter with Section 5 champion Williamsville North, who could not touch Panas ace Jackson DiLorenzo, who whiffed five of the first six batters he faced en route to a 6-1 semifinal win, in which he mowed down 14 batters on K’s when all was said and done.
And when Boston College-bound CF Tony Humphrey crushed a triple and scored on a Michael Scozzafava sac fly in the bottom of the second, Coach Anthony Fata’s Panthers took a 1-0 lead and confidence continued to soar.
And it kicked up a tick even further when Humphrey, again, delivered and RBI single for a 3-0 lead after a DiLorenzo single plated sure-fire MLB draftee Sammy Stafura, who tacked on a well-struck inside-the park-homer for a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the fifth.
Carmen Panaro pulled a homer over the RF fence to get Williamsville North on the board, down 4-1, for DiLo’s lone blemish.
DiLorenzo and Stafura each tacked on an RBI single in the sixth, leading to a 1-2-3 seventh from DiLo, who was dealing from start to finish during a tidy four-hit, one-walk effort #MyDudeWasShoving.
“It was great today,” said the ECU-bound DiLorenzo, who clouted a mighty .513 BA this season and a team-best OBP of .613. “I’m still feeling pumped about everything that just happened. Everything we have worked for is just seven innings away. The fastball was working big time today. Just had to stay confident and use it. The command was great today, and once I took a breath, and realized I’m gonna win if I compete, it all clicked. Threw a minimum amount of sliders and I’m super-pumped, but even happier my guys gave me the run support we needed.”
Run support was the primary issue in the NYS championship battle with Section 2 champion Columbia Saturday when the Blue Devils (20-6) jumped out a 2-0 first-inning lead before taking a 5-1 state title-clinching win, leaving the Panthers (25-4) one win shy securing the first NYS baseball title in Lakeland School District history.
Columbia had an ace in the hole in lefty Elias Conway (6 IP, 7 K, 4 hits, 0 ER). Many lefties have been kryptonite for Panas over the course of the last three seasons and such was the case in Saturday’s title tilt.
Trailing 2-0, the Panthers got a run closer when Derek Hawley singled home Humphrey, who reached on an infield single and moved to second after initially being picked off first. Defensive interference moved him to third and he scored easily on the Hawley single for the lone Panas run.
Columbia tacked on two more runs when Steven Heller stroked a two-run single, leading to an early dismissal for talented Panther sophomore P Nick DiMaso, who won the sectional title game but couldn’t solve the Columbia batters. Panas reliever Anthony Jaeschke, who has been solid all season out of the pen, ended the threat and escaped further damage when Stafura made a nice running put-out, but the Panthers trailed 4-1 in the fourth.
Panas C Dan Witters crushed a ball to deep CF in the next frame, but it was tracked down for an out. Jaeschke held firm in the top of the fifth and Panas had 9-1-2 due up in the bottom of the do-or-die fifth inning when Stafura was robbed yet again, this time by Columbia SS Naim Greenberg-Nielsen, who added a sac fly in the bottom of the fifth for good measure. Panther Austin Pagliettini’s diving catch in RF averted further damage.
“This one stings more than ever,” the Stetson-bound Witters admitted, still in awe of his game-winning, three-run, extra-inning dinger in the regional finals earlier in the week. “(Conway) was a good pitcher, previously up to 89 MPH. Threw strikes. We were grabbing a ton of barrels, and they were making plays, and everything they hit was dropping. Felt like we couldn’t catch a break, but that’s how baseball goes. Definitely a good arm, wouldn’t say he overpowered us, though.”
Few, if any, teams in NYS overpowered this Panas club, which hit a collective .369 BA, mashed 28 dingers and knocked in 197 runs, all program records.
“We’ve certainly got a lot to be proud of,” Coach Fata said. “Columbia was a good, contact-hitting team. Their balls were finding holes while our balls were finding gloves. I’m so proud of my guys for what they’ve done this year. We’ve never seen anything like this at Panas.”
Eleven seniors, several of them right up there with the best in Panas history, have reset the bar for future generations. It’s entirely possible the Panthers won’t get back to a state championship game for many moons, considering they’ve never been close before 2023, but these standard-bearing Panthers left an impression like no Panas team has done before.
Panas rode to Binghamton on the backs of the four horsemen – Humphrey, DiLo, Witters and Stafura – but the complementary pieces were equally pivotal, according to Stafura, who committed to Clemson but will likely go early in July’s MLB draft.
“I’m beyond thankful for all my teammates, coaches, families, community and everyone who has been a part of this special time for Panas baseball,” Stafura said. “I’m so blessed to have had the opportunity to play with all of these guys since little league. It’s always been a very special group, a group that’s selfless, and a group where every single teammate has your back no matter what. It seems surreal that it’s over, but we’ve created lifelong relationships and countless memories that will last forever. Although we weren’t able to pull it off in the state championship, we’ve accomplished a whole lot as a team and I’m beyond proud. What a ride it has been.”
Baseball is probably the most unpredictable sport of them all, but truer words have never been spoken.
Ray has 33 years experience covering and photographing local sports in Westchester and Putnam counties, including everything from Little League/Travel Baseball to varsity high school prep sports and collegiate coverage. He has been a sports editor at Examiner Media since its inception in 2007.