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Memorable RKA season finishes with playoff debate

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It was the end of April and the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy baseball team was at a crossroads.

The Tigers were barely above .500, and the meat of their schedule had yet to be played.

That’s when head coach John Reingold sat his team down, imploring them to dig deep. And if they did, it could turn out to be a memorable season.

From that day forward the Tigers excelled. They closed out the regular season winning eight straight games and then knocking off Smith 5-4 in the first round of the Public School Athletic League playoffs, the first postseason win for RKA since 2010.

“When we were 4-3 we were not a good 4-3 team,” Reingold said. “But the kids really bought into what we were selling, and the team definitely picked up its play. I’m very proud of the way they put it together.”

But cold bats and a hot pitcher finally ended the Tigers’ magical ride as Maspeth’s Thomas Jankowski held RKA to just three hits while striking out six, and the Tigers saw their season come to an end in a 3-0 loss in a second-round playoff game.

“We just couldn’t get it together,” Reingold said.

“I was surprised we were so flat offensively. The pitching was pretty good. But it’s hard to win a playoff game when you don’t score.”

The Tigers got a strong pitching performance from sophomore Jacob Schmieder, who allowed one unearned run in his four innings of work. But some uncharacteristic defensive lapses cost the Tigers, putting them in a three-run hole they could not dig themselves out of.

“Jake pitched great for us,” Reingold said. “But we had three errors, and all at costly times, like a routine dropped ball in rightfield that cost us a run.”

The season-ending loss to Maspeth came one game after the Tigers posted their first postseason win in almost a decade with the victory over Smith. Earlier in the season, Smith beat RKA 5-4, so there was some concern going into the game.

That worry only grew when the Warriors scored twice in the top of the first inning to take the early lead. But RKA wasted no time in responding, rallying for three runs in their half of the first to take a 3-2 lead after an RBI squeeze bunt by Max Bowden and a two-run single by Sam Stricks.

The Tigers added to their lead in the fourth when Reingold called for the squeeze bunt again, and Stiven Mendez executed it perfectly, allowing Elijah Fingal to score from third for a 4-2 lead. RKA went up 5-2 in the sixth when Ulysses Luciano scored on an error, and victory appeared to be locked up entering the final inning.

Smith had been unable to touch RKA starter Richie Gonzalez after the first inning as the junior right-hander cruised. He struck out seven through the first six and was looking to make quick work of the Warriors in the final frame.

But three straight infield hits, combined with an error and a hit-by-pitch, allowed Smith to plate two runs and load the bases with one out. But with RKA’s season on the line, Gonzalez closed the door by striking out the final two Smith batters, allowing the Tigers to hang on for the win.

“It got pretty tense there,” Gonzalez said. “Especially when they started talking like they were going to win. So there was some pressure. We lost to them the last time we played them, so we just knew we had to get that win.”

Despite dominating Smith for most of the game, Gonzalez downplayed his performance.

“I feel like I could have done better,” he said. “But I told my teammates that I’ll do my job. I’ll get it done.”

The victory was especially satisfying for Luciano as the senior catcher was 0-3 in playoff games in his career prior to the Smith win.

“We’ve been in the playoffs every year since I’ve been a freshman, but we’ve lost in the first round every year,” Luciano said. “This is the first time that I won a playoff game. I’m real excited for this win.”

Unfortunately for the Tigers, they had to settle for one postseason win. But a loss in the second round of the playoffs — for a team that started the season slow and played every game on the road due to renovations on its home field of Seton Park — still made for a memorable season.

“Overall it was a good season,” Reingold said. “We got to the Round of 16, but it would have been nice to get to the quarters. But not a bad season at all.”

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