ALBANY — Drawing first blood is something the Ticonderoga baseball team talks about often.
In a battle of 2018 state finalists Saturday, it took until the fifth inning before the Sentinels kicked in the door and ousted undefeated Fort Plain with a 9-1 victory in a Class C regional final at Bob Bellizzi Field.
The win propelled Ticonderoga (17-2) into the State Baseball Tournament final four for the second straight year. The Sentinels are scheduled to face Section V champ Gananda in the semifinals on Friday at 2 p.m. at Maine-Endwell High School.
“We always have the state (final) loss in the back of our mind,” said senior pitcher Russell Gallo III, who fired a complete-game two-hitter with 13 strikeouts. “That’s definitely a driving factor — we just want to get back and finish the job this year.”
“It feels great, but we aren’t satisfied yet,” said senior catcher Jack Grinnell, who started the Sentinels’ scoring explosion with a two-run single in the fifth. “We want to get back where we were — this is one more step to achieve that goal. I don’t think any of us are ready to go home yet.”
Section II champion Fort Plain — the No. 1-ranked team in the state and last year’s Class D state runner-up — had dominated its opponents, allowing just 19 runs all season.
But the second-ranked Sentinels figured they could do something no other team had all season — take a lead on the Hilltoppers.
“We always talk about it — draw first blood, draw first blood,” Grinnell said. “I think we had them rattled at the beginning because they’ve never been in a close game like this.”
“I knew if we put some pressure on — even those little dribblers, those are hard baseball plays in a big game — hopefully something good happened,” Ticonderoga head coach Dan Dorsett said. “That was the game plan, and it worked exactly how we wanted it to.”
“We just had to get the bat on the ball and let them make mistakes,” Gallo said.
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After four scoreless innings against Fort Plain sophomore starter Troy Butler, the Sentinels batted around and scored five runs in the fifth, all with two outs. After loading the bases on an error, a walk and an infield single, Grinnell ripped a single through the right-field gap to score two runs.
“Basically when the inning came up, we decided to go fastball hunting and just sit on it, and take his curveballs,” Grinnell said. “And I got what I wanted, and thankfully they were playing in and it squeaked through for those two big runs for the icebreaker.”
Gallo followed with an RBI double, then Michael DuShane added a two-run single, with Gallo sliding under the tag for a 5-0 lead.
“(Butler) couldn’t believe he got hit that hard,” said Hilltoppers coach Craig Phillips, whose finished the season two wins shy of 800 for his career. “He’s got something like 85 strikeouts, but that’s the hardest he’s been hit. We’ve never been behind the whole year — I think they were shell-shocked.”
“The key thing was us scoring first,” Dorsett said. “They were getting frustrated that they weren’t hitting — you could tell, they’ve had so much success. It’s hard to be 21-0. There was no pressure on us — we’re the underdogs, we’re not supposed to beat a 21-0 team.”
Fort Plain took a run back in the bottom of the fifth, scoring on a bases-loaded walk, after loading the bases without benefit of a hit.
However, the wheels came off for the Hilltoppers in the sixth, as they committed four of their six errors. Gallo and Nick Robarge-Greene had RBI singles and two runs scored on errors for a 9-1 lead.
After his rough inning, Gallo went on to strike out the side in the sixth after a triple by Dawson Nare. Gallo then finished off the game himself in the seventh.
“I just had to take a deep breath, get back into my rhythm,” Gallo said.
“I don’t think anyone knows how tough he is,” Dorsett said. “Last year, before we played Maple Hill (in regionals), he asked, ‘Who’s pitching?’ and I said, ‘You are.’ And he asked, ‘How long?’ and I said, ‘Till you get them all out.’ And I reminded him of that conversation today — I said, ‘Last year, you were a bulldog. Don’t be afraid of them, go get ’em.’”