Once on the brink of being a spectator in the district and state playoffs, La Salle is now a win away from a second PIAA Class AAAA baseball championship in three seasons.
"It's pretty special," senior righthander Dom Cuoci said. "We're fortunate to be where we are. When it happens, you really have to savor it. That's what we're doing."
In Monday's state semifinal against Spring-Ford, Cuoci, a senior righthander, pitched a two-hitter with nine strikeouts as the Explorers downed Spring-Ford, 3-0, in 1 hour, 19 minutes at Neumann University in Aston.
Last month, Cuoci and company, after two Catholic League playoff losses, needed Neumann-Goretti to twice beat Roman Catholic in the championship round. The Saints delivered, and - based on the league's playoff system - La Salle qualified to play for the District 12 AAAA title, which it won.
Four victories later, La Salle is set to take on Conestoga, a 3-2 winner Monday over District 7's Seneca Valley, for top state honors at 1 p.m. Friday at Penn State's Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Conestoga was the third-place finisher in District 1; Spring-Ford was fourth.
Against Spring-Ford, Cuoci, who has gamely battled through a middle-back injury this season, allowed only a second-inning triple and fifth-inning double.
"He had all of his stuff, was in the zone, and hitting his spots," Explorers senior catcher Nick Dermo said. "And he was working fast, like he always does."
Cuoci mixed a fastball clocked in the mid-80-m.p.h. range, a slider, and a change-up. He threw 90 pitches, 62 for strikes.
Of the lingering back issue, the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder said: "It's still there, but it's not as bad. It'll probably be a little sore [Tuesday], but I'll be OK."
Held without a hit in the first four innings by Rams junior righthander Bret Clarke, the Explorers (20-6) did all of their scoring with two outs in the sixth. Cuoci, Dermo, and Brian Buckley came through with consecutive RBI singles.
Cuoci, a cleanup man, plated the deciding run with a right-side nubber that Clarke chased down (in front of charging second baseman Connor Murphy) and tried in vain to accurately flip to first base. Dermo and Buckley followed with hits to right field.
After Cameron Simmons opened Spring-Ford's second with a triple to left, Cuoci responded with three whiffs. In the fifth, with baserunners on first and third and none out, the ace escaped with a fly to right and double-play liner to first.
The Rams (20-8) fell just short of reaching the state final for the third time in seven seasons.
Spring-Ford 000 000 0 - 0 2 1
La Salle 000 003 x - 3 4 1
WP: Dom Cuoci. LP: Bret Clarke. 2B: SF-Shane Emrich. 3B: SF-Cameron Simmons.