ONONDAGA — For the second straight year, Auburn baseball sat idly by and watched another team accept championship medals.
The Maroons, appearing in back to back Section III Class A championships, fell in this year’s final 9-1 to Cortland.
The loss extends Auburn’s title drought, which dates back to 2014, for another year. Coach John Turcsik said that when a team gets this far only to lose, “it hurts.”
“To know that you’re that close and you can taste it, to fall short is definitely a tough pill to swallow,” Turcsik said. “But if you would’ve told us back at the first practice we’d be back in a sectional championship after the seniors we lost last year, I may not have believed it.
“These guys came together … and their drive, heart and toughness got us back to this spot. It wasn’t easy to get back and I’m proud of the guys for what they did. We just fell a little short.”
Auburn’s strength throughout the season was its pitching depth, and the Maroons needed every bit of that depth to get through top-seeded Whitesboro on Saturday.
The cost of that win, while worth it, meant starter Lucas West was unavailable for the championship. Sophomore Owen Birchard, another pitcher who handled heavy innings this year, was unavailable on the mound due to an injury suffered earlier in sectionals.
Against Cortland, Auburn turned to left-hander Cooper Polcovich, who missed last game and was battling an ailment of his own.
After two uneventful innings for its offense, the Tigers struck for five runs on six hits in the third against Polcovich with an RBI triple by Max Gambitta opening the floodgates.
Ultimately, that inning was a sign that while the youthful Maroons’ pitching staff oozes with potential and capability, it had simply ran out of gas.
“Coop wasn’t at full strength today, but he put it all out there for us,” Turcsik said. “He went out there and battled through some arm pain and gave us his best shot, and that’s all we can ask for. For guys to give us a chance, and he went out there and did that for us. We were a little short-handed pitching-wise and Cortland swung the bats well.”
Prior to Cortland taking a 5-0 lead in the third, the Maroons had multiple chances to opening the scoring.
In the first, Kevin Dolan reached on a one-out walk and advanced to second on a groundout before a fly out ended the inning.
Auburn then put the first two runners on in the second as Mac Maher singled and Jason Irwin walked. While Maher was eventually able to advance to third, another hit to score the run eluded the Maroons.
It wasn’t until the sixth inning that Auburn managed another hit against Tigers right-hander Kooper Knabe. Dolan started that frame with a double, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on Jayden DeAngelis’ sacrifice fly.
Dolan’s two-bagger was Auburn’s only extra-base hit, and one of two on the night. A stark contrast to Cortland’s lineup of mashers that pounded out 14 hits.
Offense has plagued the Maroons in each of these title game appearances. Last year against CBA, Auburn managed eight hits but was shutout.
A reversal of that trend may be needed to get over the hump.
“We had to put up a big number today to have a chance, and unfortunately our bats didn’t come through,” Turcsik said. “Their pitcher was tough and a lot of times overpowered our hitters. We were either late on it or didn’t have hard contact. We’ve gotta put in a lot of work in the offseason to get bigger and hopefully come back looking like Cortland’s big guys next year.”
While a return to the section championship in 2022 may have seemed against the odds due to Auburn’s relative youth, the standard has now been set for a more experienced team in 2023.
The Maroons lose only one starting player to graduation — Dolan, the shortstop and one of the team’s most productive hitters — but otherwise return the entire roster, including the promising pitching staff.
“Kevin is an awesome kid. He’s a kid you’ll always have penciled in the lineup and will always go out and produce for you,” Turcsik said. “I told the guys, ‘Use him as an example to learn from.’ He’s a special kid and a kid we’re gonna miss.
“We’re really exciting about the staff we’ll bring back next year. It’s a lot of young arms and a lot of live arms. I think we’ve got a great opportunity ahead of us.”