UNIVERSITY PARK — Hunter Merritt did all he could to settle the butterflies.
His pitching coach and later his teammates did, too. But there’s only so much one can do when faced with pitching in the biggest game of one’s career.
The minutes leading up to Merritt’s entrance into the top of the seventh inning of the PIAA Class 5A baseball championship are nothing, though, compared to the joy he’ll remember the rest of his life after pitching the final out in Red Land’s second state championship victory.
Merritt, the lone senior not in the starting lineup for the loaded Patriots all year, got the chance — with two outs and a runner on second in an 8-3 ballgame against Lampeter-Strasburg — to share in the on-field glory, something he hadn’t gotten to taste most of this season.
The gloves go flying!
“I’m never gonna forget this moment,” he said.
Red Land starter Jaden Henline cruised almost all game against the Pioneers. And having gotten the second out of the final frame with 103 pitches, he could have easily finished off his complete game, which he certainly would’ve deserved.
But Pats head coach Nate Ebbert wanted to “reward [Merritt] for being a great teammate all year and let him just be at the bottom of that pile.”
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“I didn’t wanna take the opportunity away from Jaden, but being able to have the opportunity, having [the coaches] let me come in and sort of honoring me, it was really cool,” Merritt said.
He said the coaches told him to start warming up after Red Land exploded for seven runs in the bottom of the sixth to turn a 3-1 deficit into a comfortable 8-3 victory.
“I was shaking a little bit [warming up in the bullpen], I was a little nervous,” Merritt said. “I was able to talk to my pitching coach, one of my coaches, being able to settle me down a little bit. All of my teammates were great calming me down. It was a great moment, it really helped me a lot.”
“I went up to him before he came in to pitch, and I told him, I was like, ‘This is your moment. You’ve been working all your life for this, and you need to go take control of it,’” senior catcher Jared Payne said. “And he did. He threw fastball right by him, popped him up and dog pile.”
He needed just two pitches to do the job, firing a low fastball and then getting Pioneers catcher Thomas Shockey to pop up harmlessly to second baseman Kyle Hannon.
Merritt is one of three seniors, along with Payne and Mason Walker. But Merritt saw limited playing time all season.
He recorded just nine at-bats, scoring once. And before the state championship at Penn State’s Medlar Park, he had thrown just 2.1 innings.
“It just means a lot. It just means what this program’s really all about,” Merritt said. “It just means a lot to me and my family.”