La Salle battles to capture state AAAA title

Posted: June 15, 2014

STATE COLLEGE - One day, he’s driving home the game-winning runs in the Class AAAA state championship game and the next, La Salle High junior Brian Buckley is headed to the United States Military Academy at West Point to learn about life as a cadet.

As far as fulfilling goals and realizing dreams go, Buckley won the weekend.

The 6-foot, 208-pound Huntingdon Valley resident, sprayed a liner up the middle with the bases loaded in yesterday’s eighth inning, plating two runs and pushing the Explorers toward a 4-2 triumph over feisty Conestoga at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Today, Buckley will begin West Point’s Summer Leadership Experience, a 2-week program where high school juniors engage in academic, athletic, military and social experiences at the USMA.

“We’re big Army people,” said Buckley, who is interested in engineering. “They’ll teach you what Army life is like, especially the military training. I’m looking forward to it.”

His older sister, Margaret, is a freshman rugby player at Army. Buckley also said his late grandfather, John Poehlmann, served in the Army.

With his hat browned by dirt, his jersey similarly soiled, and 5 o’clock stubble shadowing his face, Buckley certainly looked the part.

“I don’t know, I just like to get dirty,” he said. “I like to give 100 percent and, on a day like this, it’s not hard.”

The District 12 top-dog Explorers (21-6), who also won the state title in 2012, nabbed early momentum with a 2-0 lead through three innings after senior Dom Cuoci (2-for-4, RBI) drove in junior Jimmy Herron in the first and Herron lofted a sac fly in the third.

Speaking of summer leadership experience, Cuoci (9-1) has that in spades. On 3 days’ rest, the Catholic League Red Division MVP and Pitcher of the Year, grinded through seven innings, scattered eight hits and gave up two earned runs for the victory.

During the week, it was unclear whether Cuoci, who is typically affable but legendarily quiet on pitching days, would start.

About an hour before the first pitch, Lorenzo Cuoci wasn’t sure of his son’s status, but had a suspicion.

“He’s only said seven words to me in the last 2 days, so, I think he might be,” Lorenzo Cuoci said before the game. The last four words were: “Love you, too, Dad.”

“It’s just a focus thing for me,” said Cuoci, whose voice was low, lifeless. “I love being upbeat with the guys, but they respect it when I’m quiet. I’m trying to get into a zone.”

The District 1 No. 3-seeded Pioneers (20-8) made that tough, rallying with single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to tie the game at two.

“I’m worn out, man,” Cuoci said. “They took everything out of me ... They made me work the hardest I’ve worked all year.”

Junior Brandon Little, a North Carolina recruit, pitched seven innings in defeat, but allowed only an earned run on four hits. Both teams committed two errors.

Seniors Tom Richter (RBI) and Max Dolente each went 2-for-4. Brandon Ruffenach added the other RBI.

And after poor execution helped squander a two-on, no-out opportunity in the seventh inning, it appeared the Explorers’ improbable playoff run was in jeopardy.

When it lost to Roman Catholic in the Catholic League playoffs, La Salle became eligible for PIAA play (because of the league’s point system) only after Ss. Neumann-Goretti defeated the Cahillites for the CL crown.

“They had every right to pack it in after losing in the [CL] playoffs,” head coach Joe Parisi said. “And having people tell them how lucky there were to be in the playoffs. Well, guess what? You can’t be lucky and do what we did today. These are really good players, great kids and some of the most enjoyable kids around.”

Senior Brad Schneider walked to start the eighth and was followed by singles from Herron and Cuoci. After a groundout, Buckley smoked the game-winner on an 0-2 count.

“I’ve had so many runners on all year and haven’t hit them in,” he said, “but finally, in a big moment, got ’em in — finally.”

A good way to start the weekend for the 4.08 GPA student, who said he doesn’t have any serious interest from Army yet, but plans to attend the school, anyway.

“It’s a great feeling,” Buckley said. “No other feeling in the world like it. Being out [of the CL playoffs] and then winning a state championship — it’s great, it’s great.”

On Twitter: @AceCarterDN

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