BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Shenendehowa won each coin flip before its June 11 games, giving the Plainsmen the advantage of being the home team in both the Class AA baseball state semifinal and state championship games at Binghamton University.
For both coin flips, the other team had been the one to call heads or tails.
“I mean,” Shenendehowa head coach Greg Christodulu said of his team’s luck, “how small of a chance is that?”
But to win a state championship, so much has to go right for a team.
The Plainsmen mounted a three-run rally June 11 in the bottom of the seventh inning to top Webster Schroeder 7-6 for their program’s first state title. Here are seven of the amazing plays, moments of happenstance and pieces of luck for Shenendehowa before that dramatic ending started:
Nick Jaques left Shenendehowa for La Salle Institute prior to sixth grade, but returned to his hometown district for his senior year to graduate with his childhood friends. Jacques starred on offense — he hit a team-best .430 and had four hits in the state title game — but his presence at shortstop was even more important.
“He was the missing piece for us,” Christodulu said.
Because, well, the Plainsmen really didn’t have another option for that position. Without Jacques, Christodulu said senior Nik Malachowski would have played shortstop and likely have not been able to pitch significant innings for the Plainsmen. With Jacques, Malachowski played second base and was one of the team’s top starting pitchers, allowing only one earned run during the regular season.
AFLOAT IN APRIL
Injury and illness kept Ian Anderson, the No. 3 pick in this year’s Major League Baseball amateur draft, from pitching all but one inning for Shenendehowa in April.
The loss of the Plainsmen’s top pitcher should have hampered their opening month. Instead, Shenendehowa emerged from April in first place in the Suburban Council and confident it could win big games without its ace.
“We fought through it,” senior third baseman Frank Pizzo said. “We grinded, as Coach would say.”
Anderson started his first game May 7 against Colonie, a 6-1 win. In hindsight, it seems a given he pitched well that day. At the time, though, there were concerns about lingering issues from the ailments that had caused him to miss action.
“When he was pretty good that day, that was a huge step for us,” Christodulu said. “The whole persona of our team changed.”
Against Colonie, Anderson struck out eight in seven innings. He ended up striking out 55 batters in 42 innings as a senior, and did not allow an earned run in the 28 postseason innings he pitched.
After an 8-0 win against Columbia in the Section II quarterfinals, the next three Shenendehowa playoff victories didn’t come easy.
The Plainsmen trailed early in the area semifinals against Guilderland and threw out two runners at home plate in an eventual 4-3 win. Shenendehowa also trailed early in the regional title game before beating Cicero-North Syracuse 5-1.
The postseason game that sticks out to Christodulu the most from the Plainsmen’s run to the state semifinals, though, was their 3-0 area championship win against CBA. Christodulu said the Brothers, which beat Shenendehowa in the regular season, were perhaps the best team the Plainsmen played in 2016 — including the state playoffs.
“That was a team that easily could have gone and won a state championship,” Christodulu said.
In the state semifinal, Shenendehowa senior right fielder Richard Drum fielded a hard-hit grounder and fired a strike to Anderson — the pitcher — covering first base for a forceout. Later, in the day’s title game, Drum forced out a runner at second base on another would-be base hit he’d fielded.
“I wouldn’t say those are [plays] we necessarily practice,” Christodulu said. “Those weren’t typical outs.”
On Drum’s first outfield assist of the day, the ball had been hit between Malachowski and first baseman Joe Fraser, taking the latter too far from first base to cover it. That meant Anderson had drifted toward the base in case he needed to receive a flip.
Instead, he received a throw from Drum that beat the West Islip runner by a half-step.
“Ian did a great job covering first and I saw him out of the corner of my eye when I fielded the ball,” Drum said.
In the title game, Drum’s assist went to Jacques to help nip a Webster Schroeder rally before it got rolling.
“Richard is really mentally aware,” Jacques said. “He knew I’d be there. I don’t think he even really looked up before he threw it.”
CADY TO THE RESCUE
Down 6-3 in the second inning of the state championship, Shenendehowa removed Malachowski from the mound. Turning to Ian Anderson, who threw a complete game in the morning’s semifinals, was not an option. Twin brother Ben Anderson, who caught both games, was likely not available given the toll catching takes on a body.
So the Plainsmen turned to senior John Cady with their season on the line.
He had not pitched in a month.
“At the time,” Ian Anderson said, “I was like, ‘Hopefully he can weather the storm.’ ”
Cady did more than that. He worked a scoreless 52⁄3 innings to record the victory.
“But that’s what good teams do,” Anderson said. “They pick each other up.”
In the defensive frame before Shenendehowa’s game-winning rally, the Plainsmen were given a gift.
Up 6-4, Webster Schroeder had runners at first and third with one out. A line drive went to Pizzo for the second out, and the third baseman then snapped a throw to first base to try to double off the runner — and sailed it wildly to the fence behind Fraser.
“I tried to throw it as fast as I could and I airmailed it,” Pizzo said. “I thought I’d blew it.”
Then, something super weird happened.
While the Webster Schroeder runner on third tagged and went home, his teammate made an inexplicable mistake. When that runner saw the throw go to the fence, he stopped his retreat and instead ran back toward second without tagging.
“It’s hard to explain why that runner didn’t keep going back to first,” Christodulu said.
With his coaches and a couple teammates hollering to him to step on first base after he retrieved the ball, Fraser recorded the inning’s final out and wiped away the insurance run Webster Schroeder should have scored.
As the Plainsmen ran off the field, a few of their players did not understand what had happened until the play was explained in the dugout.
“I literally had no idea. It was just insane. I was so confused,” Pizzo said.
“But,” he added, “then, I couldn’t have been happier.”
SHENENDEHOWA BASEBALL TEAM LEADERS, 2016
Batting average: Nick Jacques, .430
Runs scored: Nick Jacques, 28
RBIs: Richard Drum, 20
Extra-base hits: Richard Drum, 9
Walks: Nik Malachowski, 15
Innings: Ian Anderson, 42
Strikeouts: Ian Anderson, 55
ERA: John Cady, 0.40
Wins: Ben Anderson/Ian Anderson/Nik Malachowski, 5
Saves: Malachowski, 3