LANCASTER — In a blink of an eye, Niagara Falls experienced the ecstasy and the inexplicable of playoff baseball.
After building up a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, the No. 3 Wolverines watched their chance to play for the Class AA championship in front of a home crowd Saturday at Sal Maglie Stadium go up in smoke.
An RBI single from senior Calvin Kaminski followed by a walk-off two-run single by junior Erik Castren was how No. 2 Lancaster erased the deficit and punched its ticket to the title game in a 4-3 comeback victory Thursday at Lancaster High School.
While he was disappointed with the outcome, Niagara Falls head coach Rob Augustino was proud of his team’s effort from first pitch to last.
“We were there to the end,” Augustino said. “If you recap through that last inning, bounces just didn’t go our way. Things went in places that we just couldn’t get to. I think everything was done correctly. It just didn’t work in our favor. … It’s how the ball bounces … That’s playoff baseball.”
The Wolverines had plenty of momentum heading into Thursday’s affair with the Legends. Not only did they clinch a second consecutive Niagara Frontier League title and their fifth dating back to 2012, the Wolverines were coming off a 10-0 shutout over Lockport on Tuesday.
But through the fifth inning, the Wolverines managed one hit and left five men on base against Lancaster (11-4-1) pitcher Max Stoldt — a first inning single from senior Jude Lowry — and trailed 1-0 after an RBI double from junior Mike Schaefer in the bottom of third.
Then, the bats clicked as a pair of walks and a single to right field from senior Domenic Hickok gave Niagara Falls a bases loaded opportunity. All during Connor Burkestone’s at-bat, Aidan Hamilton scored on a wild pitch to tie the game at 1-1 before the senior delivered a sacrifice fly-out that resulted in two runs due to a missed throw from the outfield.
The explanation of why the bats were able to break through in that frame was a simple one from Augustino. The baseball was put in play, causing the Legends to make outs, a similar situation he noted that the Wolverines faced in the bottom of the seventh.
“Put the ball in play, good things are gonna happen, you know?” Augustino said. “It’s not a strikeout where nothing happens and you’re out. It’s not a pop up where it’s pretty simple. Put the ball in play, make them work to get you out. Field it, throw it, catch it, that type of thing.”
Not only did Burkestone provide the big swing at the plate, he proved again why he was Niagara Falls’ ace on the mound all season. Outside of allowing Schaefer’s RBI single, Burkestone allowed only seven hits through six innings and struck out four batters — the last coming against Schafer with the bases loaded to end his day, and provide what Augustino described as a “bulldog mentality.”
“I just trusted myself and everything,” Burkestone said of the final at-bat of his career. “I trust this team. So I know, even if the best doesn’t happen, someone’s gonna make up a play for me. And, you know, in my head, I think I’m the best one on the field all the time. So when I’m in a bad situation, I just think, ‘I can do it.’”
The Wolverines will have some pieces to fill, including 11 seniors. The pure love of playing the game, Augustino said, is what made this team a special group to coach.
“You hate when that senior group goes,” Augustino said. “It’s on to the next year, but it’s gonna sting a little bit this year. It’s gonna sting.”
In the Lancaster victory, Schaefer went 2 for 4 and senior Ethan Bak went 3 for 4 at the plate. The Legends face No. 4 Williamsville North in the Class AA championship game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Sal Maglie Stadium in Niagara Falls. The Spartans defeated No. 8 Frontier in the second AA semifinal, 10-4.
Niagara Falls finished with a 14-4-1 record.
In other Greater Niagara Region sectional baseball action:
Roy-Hart 6, Salamanca 2
A trio of RBI singles as part of a four-run first inning kick-started the offense for No. 6 Roy-Hart against No. 7 Salamanca in a Class B2 semifinal matchup. The Rams have now advanced to the sectional final for the sixth consecutive season.
Roy-Hart (16-4): Brayden Hy struck out 12 batters through 5 1/3 innings of work and allowed two runs on four hits. Zack Walker had a two-run single while Thomas Russo went 2 for 3 at the plate. The Rams face No. 4 Fredonia in the Class B2 championship game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Grand Island High School. The Hillbillies defeated No. 8 Southwestern, 12-4.
Salamanca (16-5): At the plate, Jaxson Ross led the Warriors at the plate with a 2 for 3 performance. He and Zaron Tucker recorded an RBI apiece.
Williamsville East 4, North Tonawanda 3
Down to their final out and trailing 3-2, senior Sean Sansone delivered a walk-off double to lift No. 1 Williamsville East against No. 5 North Tonawanda in a Class A1 semifinal matchup.
Williamsville East (15-4): The Flames face No. 2 Hamburg in the Class A1 championship game at 5 p.m. Saturday at Sal Maglie Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated No. 6 Kenmore West, 11-1.
North Tonawanda (9-10): Senior Jaedan Zalewski hit a two-run home run in the top seventh to give NT’s brief lead while junior pitcher Jacob Szlis struck out 11 batters and allowed two runs on seven hits.
Amherst 18, Grand Island 4
By scoring 13 runs in the bottom of the fourth, No. 1 Amherst went over the sectional run limit and moved past No. 4 Grand Island in a Class A2 semifinal matchup.
Amherst (15-5): Jayden Serotte threw all four innings for the Tigers, allowing Grand Island’s three runs on just four hits. Serotte was also 2 for 3 at the plate while CJ Hurley went 3 for 4 with a double and a triple. The Tigers face No. 2 Williamsville South in the Class A2 championship game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Sal Maglie Stadium. The Billies defeated No. 3 Kenmore East, 7-3.
Grand Island (9-13): Jaimen Wright went 2 for 2 at the plate with an RBI. Teammates Riley Masterman, Nate VanNorman and Mitch Samplinski each drove in a run in the Vikings’ season finale.
Ellicottville 6, Barker 3
A pair of runs in the second and fourth innings each was enough for No. 5 Ellicottville against No. 8 Barker in a Class D semifinal matchup.
Ellicottville (7-13): Freshman Cameron Mendell went 3 for 4 at the plate. The Eagles face No. 2 North Collins or No. 6 Westfield in the Class D championship game at 3 p.m. Saturday at Diethrick Park in Jamestown.
Barker (2-17): J.J. Prynn and Tristen Garcia recorded an RBI and a stolen base for the Raiders. Mike Kalynycz went 1 for 1 with an RBI and two walks. Five different batters recorded a hit in the team’s season finale.