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A loss to rival Cedar Cliff in the District 3 Class 5A semifinals was a low point for Red Land baseball this year.

The Patriots entered that matchup with 16 wins in the past 17 games and felt they could claim a district title in a loaded bracket. But the Colts won 4-3, and Red Land head coach Nate Ebbert said he “was moping around for a day or two.”

Rather than send the team into a tailspin, though, the defeat forced a change in attitude and work ethic.

As the season reached the playoffs, Ebbert, like most coaches, orchestrated lighter practices to keep his players fresh as the season grew longer. And besides, the Patriots feature seven future NCAA Division I players — they know how to play in these big games.

“We had been having light practices and Eb’s been letting us go because we are D-I guys and they’re just like, ‘Alright, just let them be,’” junior ace Luke Wagner said. “Then we lost and he goes, ‘Alright, time to turn it on.’ And we’ve been having tougher practices. And I think it’s showing how we’re playing.”

“It seems like we had a big coming-to-Jesus talk, or whatever you want to say,” Ebbert said. “I told them after that game, I said, ‘I usually lay off you guys the end of the year because it seems like you’re getting tired the end of the year.’ But I’m like, ‘Look, you guys are gonna be playing college, you’re gonna be playing 55, 60 games. If you can’t handle having hard practices, having focused practices after [22] games, you don’t deserve to be here anyhow.’”

As Wagner said, the results speak for themselves.

The Patriots (District 3 third seed, 24-3) have four straight wins, including two blowouts to start the PIAA Class 5A tournament. And the latest, a 2-1 battle with District 11’s Blue Mountain on Tuesday, placed them back in the state championship game for the first time since 1990, ready for a 7 p.m. game against Lampeter-Strasburg at Penn State’s Medlar Field.

That first state title came with Bret Wagner, Cole’s father, pitching a two-hitter and Kyle Wagner, Luke’s father, catching in the title game, a 7-1 win over Indian Valley.

Now, a lineup stocked with college ballplayers is practicing and playing with fire again to chase a second state title for the program.

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Red Land Blue Mountain
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Red Land Blue Mountain
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Red Land Blue Mountain
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Red Land Blue Mountain

‘The Little League kids’

Four of the members of the 2015 Red Land Little League squad that won the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series are starters on this varsity team: juniors Jaden Henline and Adam Cramer, and sophomores Cole Wagner and Braden Kolmansberger. Sophomore Ethan Phillips and freshman Kaden Peifer play on the JV squad.

For the rest of their high school careers, and perhaps as far as college, they will be known as “the Little League kids,” as Luke Wagner, older cousin of Cole, put it.

Fair or unfair, expectations sit firmly on those kids to perform on big stages and win games. That’s the bar that was set during that storied run that put Cole Wagner and his teammates on a national TV stage.

“I grew up with Cole, and Jaden, and Adam, and all those guys that played in the Little League World Series,” said Luke, who didn’t play on that team. “And you can tell they have that title of being in the Little League World Series. And people come to our games to watch the ‘Little League kids.’ … I know those guys, they take that to heart, and they want to show them what they could do and what they can do.”

The next chance to prove themselves is Thursday at 7 p.m. at Penn State’s Medlar Field against District 3 four-seed Lampeter-Strasburg (24-4) for the PIAA Class 5A title, which would be the program’s second state gold. A state title would further cement their status in Red Land lore.

But, for Ebbert, it’s tough to view Cole, Henline or any of the others as “the Little League kids.” Not when the longtime coach has seen them waddling around in diapers and stumbling around a t-ball field.

“He’s not Cole Wagner, the Little League all-star,” Ebbert said. “He’s Cole Wagner, the kid that couldn’t catch a ball when he was in t-ball. We weren’t sure if he should throw left-handed or should throw right-handed. He’s just a kid, we’ve known him since he was in diapers. Same with Jaden, I’ve coached him since he was probably 6 years old.

“They’re not the Little League kids, they’re not the D-I kids, they’re just these guys. I never think of them as that, I just think of them as kids I teach and coach.”

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A college roster

And that philosophy is something Ebbert tries to extend to everyone on one of the most talented rosters in the state this year.

Seven are already bound for Division I programs, including three in the Southeastern Conference: seniors Jared Payne (Kentucky) and the Wagner cousins (Georgia). Mason Walker (Pitt) and Benny Montgomery (Virginia) are on the list, and Jaden Henline and Kyle Hannon will play together in two years at Penn State, site of Thursday’s state final.

There is no way to describe that kind of roster other than “loaded.” Luke Wagner, who will play this summer in the inaugural Prospect Development Pipeline League created by MLB and USA Baseball, is a possible early round MLB draft pick in 2020.

For all the accolades, Division I scholarships and national attention on the septet, egos could easily fracture the team. At least once this year there was friction.

“We’ve had some of that,” Payne said. “And earlier in the season we had some guys get a shot, and they didn’t come through, and then the young guys came up and they came through. It’s just like going to college ball.”

“We realized [when several of us had an early season hitting slump] that this is a team game and you can’t be selfish up there,” Luke said. “And lately that’s been kicking because we’re playing for gold.”

For example, Merritt has ceded playing time this year to teammates younger than him. Most seniors don’t envision spending their final season on the bench. It’s not as if Merritt can’t play — he threw 10.2 innings as a sophomore, then threw 12.2 as a junior and hit .256 in 39 at-bats — but there are better arms and bats on the roster now.

It could have been a divisive issue, a senior losing valuable playing time to juniors and sophomores. But it largely hasn’t, Payne said.

“[Merritt’s] never had a frown on his face, he’s always been up, getting everyone up, laughing, cheering,” Payne said. “And [fellow senior] Mason’s been playing great third base for us, and we need that from him. … I know for a fact they want this just as bad as everyone else.

“Best players are gonna be playing on the field because we want to win something that’s bigger than all of us. For our school, and for our community, it would be amazing.”

Ebbert and Payne said one thing that’s helped stem the egos has been a balanced leadership approach. Payne, Walker and Hunter Merritt, the three seniors, don’t carry the bulk of the load. At times the Wagners step in. And more have stepped up as the season has progressed, Payne said.

“Honestly, now, we’re all leaders,” Payne said. “We all act as leaders and we just look up to each other. I feel like that works better, so then we don’t have one kid trying to do everything. … If we all just think everyone’s the best player on the field, we don’t have any egos.”

“It’s a bunch of guys keeping each other in check,” Ebbert said. “That comes from just playing a bunch of baseball.”

A long time coming

In a late-April win over Cumberland Valley, Ebbert acknowledged the expectations this roster faced, internally and externally.

“If we don’t win this year, I’m gonna look a fool,” he said then. “If we do win, ‘Well, heck, he should win with that much talent.’ Which, I knew that. There was gonna be pressure from the time they won the Little League World Series.”

But Ebbert said after Tuesday’s title-game-clinching victory he also saw this coming before the Williamsport run. Before the rest of the country heard of #WhyNotUs, Ebbert was already thinking of their high school futures.

“Even before the Little League World Series and all that hoopla around that, we were expecting to be in a situation like this,” Ebbert said. “Just all that Little League stuff [got] everybody else expecting it, too. We’ve been coaching these guys like high school kids since they were young.”

All in preparation for this.

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

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