Tonawanda News — Before Friday's Section VI B1 semifinal game against No. 5 seed East Aurora, Tonawanda baseball coach John Frank told Athletic Director Brad Halgash that this year's team is the "Cardiac Warriors," because of its penchant for late-game heroics.
Well, those Warriors did it again.
Facing Ian Allen, one of the top pitchers in Western New York, Tonawanda only managed five hits but a timely double by Nick Pullo in the bottom of the sixth inning tied the score and a past ball by Allen to Patrick Ball plated Pullo, and the Warriors hung on to win 3-2 to advance to the BI finals next Wednesday.
"We've been doing it all year," Frank said. "There was never really too much nervousness. You have to give credit to Ian Allen from East Aurora, he threw a heck of a game. He's probably the best pitcher we've seen so far and he kept our bats at bay until the sixth inning."
Allen finished with 14 strike outs, but it was Tonawanda pitcher Jared Zellner who stole the spotlight.
After Cody McGregor pitched the first two innings and allowed a pair of runs, Zellner entered and shut the door on the Blue Devils. He pitched the rest of the way, striking out 10 batters in his five innings and three straight to end the game in the seventh.
Frank said the plan was to go to Zellner if McGregor got into trouble and he credited his senior for giving the Warriors a chance to win.
East Aurora coach Steve Sokolski also gave a tip of the hat to Zellner after the game.
"Ian is the best pitcher, I think around. He did good and we can beat anybody with him out there," Sokolski said. "Zellner done good, though. He kept us off balance and we couldn't do much. … It was a good game but unfortunately we didn't beat them."
With the game in the balance and time running out, Frank knew he needed somebody to step up. When the lineup card read Zellner, Steven Warthling and Pullo in the sixth — three seniors — he said he couldn't have asked for a better spot in the lineup down a run.
Pullo said the win was extra special because there is no next year for the seniors. He welcomed the opportunity to help his team win and his game-tying double was exactly what the doctor ordered.
"I had previously struck out my last few at bats, but I talked to my sister and my mom — I go to them when I'm getting frustrated — and they just told me to calm down," Pullo said. "I went up there and forgot the last two at bats and got that double."
Lost in the number of late-game clutch plays by the Warriors was a big time play by junior Ben Stich in the first inning. East Aurora took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first and Stich walked to lead off the bottom.
With two outs and Stich on third, he tested the Blue Devils catcher as he raced toward home and beat him after a botched pitch to score the first run. Zellner had a double in the first, but the Warriors went hitless in innings two through five, making Stich's heads up base running key in the win. Freshman Bret Kelly, who had a single in the game, also made a huge play in the game: a magnificent diving catch to end the top of the sixth inning with a runner on base.
Tonawanda lost in the semifinals last season and now moves on to play No. 9 seed Springville at Sal Maglie next week. Zellner said the team talked before the game and agreed that nobody was ready to go home quite yet.
"I didn't want to go out the way we did last year again," he said. "We talked about not having a repeat performance from last year. Just go out and get the win."Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @TonaNewsSports.