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FREDERICKSBURG — The drought will not reach 30 years.

For the first time since 1990, Red Land baseball is heading back to the PIAA championship. The Patriots survived a nail-biting 2-1 battle with District 11’s Blue Mountain on Tuesday in the Class 5A semifinals, booking a trip to Penn State’s Medlar Field to try to bring home the program’s second state championship.

“It means the world, honestly, to finish out this way as a senior,” said catcher Jared Payne, who let out a ferocious fist pump after catching a called strike three for the final out. “We’ve been so close — my first three years we didn’t get past the quarterfinals — so to come this far and make it is just amazing. I’m so happy.”

“I told myself we weren’t going to Medlar Park until we were playing there, and I’m glad I didn’t have to wait another year,” said head coach Nate Ebbert.

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Red Land Blue Mountain
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Red Land Blue Mountain

Only two more days.

The Patriots (24-3) and Pioneers (24-4) meet at 7 p.m. Thursday for the second time in two weeks (Red Land won the District 3 third-place game).

Junior southpaw Luke Wagner, who suggested some L-S players perhaps didn’t give their all in the last meeting, said he’s looking forward to getting “their full potential and we can see what they can do.”

Wagner made his third appearance in a row and will be ineligible to pitch for the state championship. He eclipsed his 105-pitch max in five innings, gutting out a “floating” strike zone, as Ebbert called it, to allow one Eagle run and fan nine.

He was not his sharpest, but his 11th win of the season featured multiple full-count strikeouts, including several with his hammer curve.

“It felt good,” the Georgia commit said. “I rested the last three days, just took my arm for a walk and just threw. But today I had to really bring it for those 100 pitches. I think it feels fine, it’s still attached.”

“He was getting in his own head a little bit with getting squeezed,” Payne said. “But other than that, I thought he threw well. … We can’t really ask for more from him.”

Wagner’s end-of-season numbers are electric. He’ll finish 11-2 with 117 strikeouts and a 1.54 ERA, arguably Cumberland County’s most dominant ace in a year filled with quality arms. He’ll pass the torch now to whatever combination of Jaden Henline, Cole Wagner and Adam Cramer the Patriots want to have toe the Penn State rubber.

Henline is eligible even after his two-inning save. The Penn State commit gets to test drive his future home, after he allowed two walks and fanned two for his first save of the season. His final strikeout caught Billy Gerlott looking.

Henline wore out in the middle of the season, Ebbert said. A rigorous offseason, plus starting the year as a shortstop/pitcher, apparently tired Henline’s right arm. So he took a break on the mound for a stretch.

The rest paid off immensely. Since the start of District 3 play, Henline has made three appearances, allowing just three hits and not one run in eight innings.

“He can locate his fastball and beat bats,” Payne said. “And once you can beat bats, you throw that curveball — his curveball’s sharp and people just look silly on it.”

Both pitchers got superb defensive plays behind them all day. While Blue Mountain committed a costly six errors, Red Land was nearly flawless.

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Adam Cramer made two diving catches in the sixth on would-be bloop singles to help Henline. And Wagner got a few impressive stops from his middle infield.

“We always joke around with Adam, ‘We got seven D-I guys, and then we got QB1,’” Ebbert said of the Patriots’ quarterback during football season. “Freaking quarterback, good athlete — I swear to God I think every time I pass him he gets taller. … He’s a good athlete, good player, nothing ever rattles him.”

But the two defining plays of the day involved Payne, the Kentucky-bound catcher. In the bottom of the first, he ended a potential threat by gunning down Drew Grace trying to steal second.

Then the Pats opened up the playbook in the fourth. The Eagles (23-5) attempted a delayed double steal with runners on the corners, but Red Land predicted it. Wagner threw to cousin Cole at first on a pickoff attempt. With the runner breaking for second, Cole Wagner turned his attention to home, and fired a strike to Payne to get Kaleb Sophy by a hair, the umpire said.

“I look over at [assistant coach Teed Wertz in the dugout] and Teed goes like that (motioning with his left hand), and I’m like, ‘Are you serious? We’re doing this?’” Luke Wagner said.

“These guys have been begging me all year to do stuff like that, and I trusted them,” Ebbert said.

It was those sharp defensive plays that gave Red Land’s bats a puncher’s chance.

For much of the game, the Patriots had little answer for Nate Nabholz — who exited the game in the third after taking a scary liner off his pitching arm — and reliever Grace. That pair allowed just five hits and fanned three, largely keeping pace with Wagner and Henline.

But errors can lose a state semifinal.

Mason Walker scored the game’s first run on Jake Cunkle’s single to right. It might not have been possible if Grace hadn’t attempted a pickoff at second, beaning Walker in the helmet as he dove back. Walker scooted to third on the error to set up the run.

Ryan Jarboe tied it grounding into a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the fifth, but Red Land wasted no time answering.

Cole Wagner worked a leadoff walk, then swiped second on the next pitch. But Alex Tidmore’s throw from home sailed, and Wagner advanced to third. Payne then chopped a single into right to score Wagner.

And now the Patriots are one win away from adding to their trophy case.

“Last time they went I was at high school, and I wasn’t at Red Land, so it’s been a long time, I know that,” Ebbert said. “A lot of the dad’s and a lot of our friends were on that team. It’s a cool feeling to go back.”

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Email Jake Adams at jadams@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520

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