ALBANY — The Ticonderoga baseball team’s path back to the state final four faced a formidable roadblock in the top-ranked and unbeaten Fort Plain Hilltoppers.
That didn’t turn out to be much of a problem for the Sentinel — it just took some time to break through.
Jack Grinnell’s two-run single keyed a five-run fifth inning, Russell Gallo III pitched a complete-game two-hitter and Ticonderoga earned a commanding 9-1 win over Fort Plain Saturday at Bob Bellizzi Field.
Ticonderoga (17-2) will play Section V's Gananda in the state semifinals Friday at Maine-Endwell High School, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s championship game at Binghamton University.
The Sentinels suffered a heart-breaking extra-inning loss in the 2018 Class C title game.
“It feels great, but we aren’t satisfied yet,” Grinnell said. “We want to get back where we were — this is one more step to achieve that goal. I don’t think any of us are ready to go home yet.”
“It’s been fueling my fire,” said Michael DuShane, who finished with two hits and two RBIs. “I keep thinking about that game in my head every day. I just want to be back in that moment and take it home.”
Fort Plain (21-1), the Section II champion, had a similar experience a season ago, losing in the state Class D championship.
Coming into Saturday’s regional matchup, the Hilltoppers had allowed 19 total runs and had never trailed the entire season.
“They definitely overlooked us, and that’s something that’s going to be a downfall for every team with us,” Gallo said.
Fort Plain’s Troy Butler kept the second-ranked Sentinels off balance for four innings, engaging in a pitchers' duel with Gallo.
But the sophomore starter quickly ran into trouble in the fifth.
Terrence Benedict grounded a single to left, Conall Tierney worked a walk and Carson Reeves reached on a one-out error to load the bases.
With the defense playing in, Grinnell stroked a two-run single to break the scoreless tie.
Gallo launched a booming double to right-center, boosting the lead to three, and DuShane capped off the scoring with a two-run single as Gallo beat the tag at home to make it 5-0.
“I really think the key thing for us was scoring first,” Ticonderoga coach Dan Dorsett said. “I mean, that was huge.”
Grinnell said he was “fastball hunting” when he came through with the big hit.
“We always talk about it — draw first blood, draw first blood — because I think we had them rattled in the beginning because they’ve never been in a close game like this,” said Grinnell, who also threw out a runner trying to steal second in the first inning. “Once we got those first two runs, I think they started to realize that this is a whole new ball game.”
The Hilltoppers seemed poised to strike back in the bottom of the frame when an error, a walk and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out.
John Cortese worked a walk to cut Ticonderoga’s lead to 5-1, but Gallo struck out the next batter and induced a grounder back to the mound to end Fort Plain’s most potent threat.
The senior southpaw, who struck out 13 and walked four, routinely pitched out of trouble, stranding 10 Hilltoppers.
Gallo tallied back-to-back strikeouts following a one-out triple in the sixth, and the only other hit he allowed was a soft flare in the first inning.
Gallo added a single, a double and two RBIs at the dish.
“He’s a workhorse for us,” Grinnell said.
Dorsett recalled a conversation he had with Gallo prior to a regional game against Maple Hill last year.
“Before the game, he said, “Who’s pitching?’ And I said, ‘You’re pitching.’ And he said, ‘How long?’ and I said, ‘Until you get them all out,’” Dorsett said. “And I reminded him of that conversation (Saturday), and I said, 'Last year, you were a bulldog. Don’t be afraid of them. Go get 'em.'"
Butler struck out 10, walked three and allowed five hits in 4⅔ innings for the loss.
“He couldn’t believe people were hitting him that hard. He’s got something like 85 strikeouts, but that’s the hardest he’s been hit,” Fort Plain coach Craig Phillips said. “We’ve never been behind, all year — I think they were shell-shocked. I was shell-shocked.”
The Sentinels took advantage of a nightmare defensive inning for Fort Plain in the sixth to add breathing room.
The first batter reached on a dropped third strike and error, a booted ball in the infield put two on and another defensive miscue made it 6-1.
Gallo drove in a run with an infield single, and Nick Robarge-Greene laced a single to right that was misplayed, allowing two more runs to cross home.
“It’s hard to be 21-0,” Dorsett said. “There was no pressure on us — we were the underdog. You’re not supposed to beat the 21-0 team.”
Ticonderoga 9, Fort Plain 1
Ticonderoga 000 054 0 — 9 8 2
Fort Plain 000 010 0 — 1 2 6
Gallo III and Grinnell. Butler, Gifford (5), Thibodeau (6) and Fureno. WP- Gallo III. LP- Butler. 2B- Gallo III (TCS).