Tears and dirt staining his reddened face, Joe Palko smiled.
He’d been smiling all season, though, especially when his senior teammates razzed him. In those moments, he said, was when the only junior in the Shenendehowa baseball team’s everyday starting lineup knew he was one of the guys.
That’s all he wanted.
“To be included on this team,” Palko said, “has made me feel great.”
But nothing felt better than when those dozen seniors and the rest of the Plainsmen rushed toward him after his game-winning, walk-off RBI single in Saturday’s Class AA state championship game at Binghamton University. Palko, who shifted between left field and second base throughout the 2016 season while hitting second in the team’s order, clinched Shenendehowa its first-ever state championship when he lined the first pitch to left-center field to score junior pinch-runner Kyle Douglas to complete a 7-6 comeback win against Webster Schroeder.
“You don’t see his name in the papers or anything, but he puts in his work and we have the greatest respect for him because he tries so hard and produces for us,” said Shenendehowa senior first baseman Joe Fraser, who had three hits and two RBIs between Saturday’s two games. “Like, today: Just another Joe Palko moment, delivering in the clutch for us.”
Senior pitcher Ian Anderson, the guy most responsible for the Plainsmen reaching the state championship, was the first Shenendehowa player out to Palko after his game-winning hit. The dogpile started soon after, as Shenendehowa celebrated a remarkable victory in which it scored four runs in the final two innings.
“The kids never died,” Shenendehowa head coach Greg Christodulu said. “They were tired, they were hot, they were angry about their performance [early] in the game — but they just kept fighting and grinding.”
Shenendehowa (21-5) had advanced to play Webster Schroeder (Section V, 20-6) after a 3-0 win against West Islip (Section XI, 25-6) in the semifinals earlier in the day. Fresh off his selection as the No. 3 pick in Thursday’s Major League Baseball amateur draft, Ian Anderson struck out eight in his fourth victory of the postseason pitching to his twin brother Ben Anderson, who was selected Saturday in the 26th round of the MLB draft.
“We knew what we were getting into,” West Islip head coach Shawn Rush said of facing Ian Anderson. “When you see a mountain, though, you can either climb it or look at it. We had our boots on, but we couldn’t get to the top.”
Ian Anderson said the excitement of the days before Saturday’s semifinal had left him a little drained, emotionally and physically. He allowed three hits in the second inning before recording a strikeout to end that frame. He settled in from there, allowing only two hits in the final five innings.
“I kind of got my legs under me the more the game went on and I felt more comfortable,” said Ian Anderson, who is expected to sign a contract to become a professional baseball player after his high school graduation.
Senior designated hitter Mike Jeffers had two RBIs in Shenendehowa’s first win Saturday, while senior shortstop Nick Jacques had the Plainsmen’s other RBI. In the championship game, Jacques had four hits, while senior right fielder Richard Drum joined Palko with three. Shenendehowa had lost in the 2014 state championship game; its victory this year was the first for a Section II Class AA team since Columbia in 2004.
With Ian Anderson a spectator for this year’s championship game, senior Nik Malachowski started the title game before moving to second base during the second inning after allowing six runs. From that position, Malachowski — who had three hits between the team’s games Saturday — watched one of his teammates save the game for Shenendehowa.
“But you’re able to calm it all down by having someone step up,” said Malachowski, who had allowed one earned run this season before Saturday. “Today, that was John Cady. He pitched a hell of a game and picked us all up.”
Cady, a senior, had not pitched since Shenendehowa’s May 12 loss to Saratoga Springs. He ended up throwing the final 52⁄3 innings against Webster Schroeder without allowing a run.
“Huge. He was huge,” Ian Anderson said of Cady, who entered with Shenendehowa down 6-3. “We don’t win this game without him throwing up zeroes.”
Cady didn’t want any credit. He said he was just doing his job.
“I couldn’t have done this without our other seniors, their leadership,” Cady said.
Shenendehowa registered 17 hits in the championship game, but after scoring three first-inning runs the Plainsmen did not score again until Palko knocked in senior center fielder Kevin Huerter while hitting into a double-play in the sixth.
Drum led off the seventh inning with a triple. He scored on Ben Anderson’s single, and senior third baseman Frank Pizzo followed that play with a single of his own.
“We knew what we had to do that inning,” said Ben Anderson, who caught all 14 defensive innings Saturday for Shenendehowa. “We put the rest of the game behind us. We knew every guy that went up had a chance to extend the game.”
The Plainsmen’s next two hitters flew out, but Jacques knocked in the game-tying run with a two-out single.
“We never stopped believing,” Malachowski said. “We just kept chugging.”
Next up was Palko, who had put pressure on himself throughout the 2016 season to not let his older teammates down.
“I had to prove myself, to them, that I should even play,” he said.
But as Palko made his way to the batter’s box, his teammates never questioned he was the right guy for the spot.
“When I saw him walking up to the plate,” Drum said, “I never doubted he was going to do it.”
“That’s his role. He’s our best little brother,” Malachowski said. “He’s a kid we know we can count on.”
A pitch and a hit later, his teammates were mobbing him at first base while the Plainsmen’s coaches watched.
“I just wanted to see them celebrate. Really, it’s all about them,” Christodulu said. “They set goals and they stayed true to each other.”
Palko was at the bottom of his team’s dogpile.
“It was awesome,” Palko said of the moment. “Just awesome.”
West Islip 000 000 0 — 0 5 0
Shenendehowa 030 000 x — 3 8 1
Weber and Valenti; I. Anderson and B. Anderson.
Webster Schroeder 150 000 0 — 6 7 0
Shenendehowa 300 001 3 — 7 17 1
Marshall, Lawlor (7) and O’Neill; Malachowski, Cady (2) and B. Anderson.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.