Jon Dupski’s 100th career win as Atholton’s head baseball coach didn’t come easy.
His Raiders struck out 11 times and were outhit 6-1 by visiting Mt. Hebron on Saturday, while starting pitcher Benji Thalheimer had to exit after five innings due to the 100-pitch limit.
However, high school baseball victories, Dupski said, rarely come easily – especially in the playoffs.
Dupski’s Raiders scored twice on wild pitches, while Thalheimer and reliever Brian Weinberg combined to throw a shutout in Atholton’s 2-0 win over Mt. Hebron in the quarterfinals of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Class 3A East region playoffs.
“It felt good,” Dupski said of the water cooler shower his players gave him after the win. “This is an amazing feeling, winning a playoff game and winning with the team we have this year. They always play as a team. I definitely didn’t know it was (No.) 100, though.”
The win was also revenge for the Raiders, as the Vikings bounced Atholton in the first game of the playoffs last season.
“It’s an amazing win, especially after last year we lost to them in the playoffs and they came back to win in the seventh inning,” Dupski said. “My heart was pounding in the seventh today.”
The game on Saturday was a strikeout fest between the two starting pitchers, both of whom struck out 10. Thalheimer, who was the winning pitcher when Atholton handed the Vikings their first loss, 4-0, of the regular season, allowed six hits, one walk and no runs in five innings.
“(Thalheimer) was on today,” said Mt. Hebron head coach Brian Culley. “He had all his stuff, and I tip my cap to him because he’s a good pitcher. We knew they were very good. This is a tough region. It’s a shame this wasn’t a game further along in the playoffs.”
Mt. Hebron’s Magnus Dunn received the tough-luck loss, allowing one hit, four walks and two runs in four innings.
“He’s darn good,” Culley said. “He’s going to continue to get better and better. He’s hard to hit. He pitched well enough to win. Two runs … we’ve got to win that game somehow.”
Atholton scored its two runs in the second inning. Mikey Burton was hit by a pitch with one out and stole second after being picked off by Dunn, a lefty, and beating the first baseman’s throw to second base. Nick Varda then had Atholton’s lone hit, a bloop single to right field, to advance Burton to third base. Burton and Varda would then both score on wild pitches, as Dunn’s high tailing fastball and sharp curveball thrice evaded Mt. Hebron’s catcher.
“It’s honestly about getting people on base,” Dupski said. “Our philosophy all year has been to be aggressive. We score any way possible, and it happened to be the two wild pitches today.”
While striking out 10 could make Thalheimer’s outing sound easy, it wasn’t. The Vikings (11-7) reached base in all five of the right-hander’s innings, leaving eight runners on base and four in scoring position.
“Baseball can be cruel,” Culley said. “We had opportunities. … We just didn’t get the big hit when it mattered most from guys we trusted all year long. I guess it wasn’t our day.”
Hebron’s best chance was in the fifth, when Tyler Lizzo, Dunn, who went 3-for-4 with a lineout, and Dylan Holzman hit three straight singles to load the bases. Thalheimer escaped the jam, though, with a strikeout looking and a soft lineout.
“I just told myself that I’m not going to let them score and get a confidence boost,” Thalheimer said. “I went from the stretch to the full windup. I’m always way more confident in the windup.”
Weinberg, a senior, relieved Thalheimer in the sixth and retired six straight outs for the save.
“They have a lot of lefties in their lineup,” Dupski said. “He’s also one of our best senior pitchers. That’s his role. He shows resilience. He’s that guy I can always count on in relief.”
Culley said the loss “hurts,” especially for his seniors: Travis Benson, Dominic d’Agostino, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Lizzo and Tim VanNetta.
“They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Culley said. “Our seniors led the team the right way for their tenure here. I feel terrible for them, but I’m proud of those guys. I wouldn’t trade my team for anything.”
Atholton (16-4) will host Centennial in the 3A East region semifinals on Tuesday. The Eagles defeated the Raiders, 8-6, in the lone matchup between the two teams in the regular season.
“I’m happy it’s a home game,” Dupski said. “I think they’re a really solid ball club. They come out and always put runs on the board. Me playing for (head coach Denis) Ahearn, I have a lot of respect for the guy.”