By SETH WHITEHEAD
For the Daily News
---- — KINMUNDY — Rudy Hablewitz struggled at the plate this spring upon rejoining the South Central baseball team after sitting out the fall season. But the senior was still a difference-maker thanks to his slick fielding in centerfield.And on Saturday, Hablewitz's glovework was the difference in South Central's 4-3 win against Altamont in the championship of its own Class 1A regional.Hablewitz ended the game with a game-saving sliding catch in the right-centerfield gap, robbing Jon Kuhns of what looked like was going to be a game-winning two-run double. Instead, the Indians stranded runners on first and third and the Cougars celebrated their 11th regional title in last 14 seasons. "He can go get 'em," said South Central coach Curt Jones, whose Cougars (9-15) move on to play longtime rival North Clay on Wednesday at the Cumberland Sectional. "That sure looked like it was down."Hablewitz got a great jump on the ball, however, and he showed exactly why his defense has earned him extensive playing time this spring."Once it started coming down and started dying, I knew I had a chance," Hablewitz said. "As soon as I watched it go in my glove, my heart jumped out of my body. I was excited. I was going crazy. I was feelin' good."It was a feeling shared by Jones, who admits his hands were shaking by the end of a tenuous game."I just don't get that way," said the normally even-keel coach. "But I was just wanting this so bad for these seniors, because they're pretty close to me. I just knew how bad they wanted it."They hadn't had much success in these types of games with their group. Last year we won a regional with different players doing it. I was sure glad they got it."Four first-inning runs against Altamont starter Clayton Ruckman proved to be enough for Jones' team, as lefty Daniel Diss scattered eight Indians hits in a complete-game win. It was quite a home-field finale for the senior, who developed into the Cougars' ace despite not pitching a single inning prior to high school."He had a couple hiccups in the middle (of the season) where he wasn't very good, but overall he was very good, especially in the fall," Jones said. "I thought he was pretty good today." Diss, much like his counterpart on the mound, settled down as the game went on, pitching five straight shutout innings after allowing two runs in the first. Diss fanned eight, but he got some help too, as the Cougars turned two double plays prior to Hablewitz's game-saving catch."I credit the defense a lot," Diss said. "Those two double plays really helped out. And we just got a lot of ground balls and fly balls, and our defense took care of it."Altamont proved resilient though, as the Indians responded to a near disastrous start with a two-run rally in the bottom of the first. Leadoff man Garrett Ziegler got things going by reaching on an error before moving to second on a wild pitch and scoring on an a single by catcher Aaron Goeckner. Goeckner then stole second, and eventually scored on an Austin Scholes groundout, cutting the Cougars' lead in half.But the Indians wound up stranding a pair of runners on the bases in the first, and they failed to capitalize on three consecutive one-out singles by Cole Borders, Ziegler and Goeckner in the second. Diss struck out No. 3 hitter Austin Finn and got Scholes to fly out to end the inning.That would prove to be the Indians' only opportunity to do serious damage until the seventh, as Borders and Ziegler got things going with back-to-back singles to start the frame. Diss got Goeckner to fly out for the first out of the inning, but walked Finn to load the bases with one out. An RBI fielder's choice by Scholes cut South Central's lead to 4-3, but Hablewitz made sure that was as close as the Indians would get, robbing Kuhns to end the game."I give credit to the centerfielder," Altamont coach Mike Dokey said. "That's a heck of a play. If he misses it, the game's over. If he catches it, they win."The way the game ended was stunning for Altamont. But it was the way that the game started that really had the Indians kicking themselves.Ruckman was on the brink of a scoreless first, as he retired Diss and Heath Hoffman after hitting Cougars leadoff man Fischer Tharp to start the game. The Indians then appeared to have Tharp picked off second for the third out of the inning, but some miscommunication led to shortstop Luke Armstrong and second baseman Austin Miller colliding in a mutual attempt to snag a throw by Goeckner, and Tharp somehow managed to get back to second safely.Kyle Bray made the Indians pay for that mistake with an RBI single to get the Cougars on the board, and the Cougars weren't done capitalizing on extra opportunities after that.Ruckman again looked to be out of the inning after striking out Noah Powless on a ball in the dirt, but the ball skipped away from Goeckner, allowing Powless to reach first safely. Austin Schwarm then drew a walk to load the bases, and Dylan Smith cleared the bases with a three-run double. Smith's ringing double to center would prove to be the game-winning hit."I'll tell ya, that first inning," Dokey said. "You can't do that against a good ballteam. (Two) hits in the inning and they score four runs. We were hoping that wouldn't come back and bite us, but it did."Ruckman recorded three of his seven strikeouts in the first, but allowed four earned runs due to the misplays. Ruckman allowed just one hit the rest of the way, retiring 14 straight Cougars at one point, but was saddled with the tough-luck loss."Our pitching has been like that all year," Dokey said. "Coming in, we had a 1.96 team ERA. But our batting, for high school ball, at .300, .333, that's not high enough. Some days we get hot and put 20 runs on the board, other days we struggle to score one or two runs. We're hot and cold, and today was one of those days we just didn't have it goin."Ziegler, Goeckner and Borders each had two hits for Altamont, but the Indians left eight on the basepaths. The Cougars finished with just three hits, but thanks to Diss' pitching and great defense — particularly by Hablewitz — it was enough."I'm definitely happy I came back out (this spring)," Hablewitz said. "Great team. Great group of guys. Best friends. It means a lot."The Cougars still remain five games under .500 despite the win, but their record is a bit deceiving, considering they played bigger schools such as Salem, Carlyle, Benton, Greenville, Wesclin, Casey-Westfield, Flora and Centralia this year."Even the games we lost weren't bad, we were just playing good teams," said Jones, whose team went 15-6-1 in the fall. "Our schedule was pretty hard. I like it that way. It didn't work out this year (record-wise), but you hope that kind of competition pays off now. Hopefully it has.""Our schedule's tough," Hablewitz said. "We play a lot of 2A and 3A schools. But this was our tournament and we had a lot to prove and I think a lot of people overlook us. But I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."The Cougars will try to avenge a pair of regular season losses to North Clay (6-0 and 4-0) on Wednesday. The Indians finished at 15-6."We had a good season," Dokey said. "The young guys got to play. I started two freshman today. Hopefully next year we'll be back in the same position and we can get a win next time."
S. Central 400 000 0 4 3 1Altamont 200 000 1 3 8 0WP — Diss LP — Ruckman
South Central — Bray 1-3 (BI), Smith 2-3 (3 BI).Altamont — Ziegler 2-4 (SB), Goeckner 2-4 (BI, SB), Finn 1-3, Scholes (2 BI), Guetierez 1-2, Borders 2-3.