WALDORF – Through everything River Hill’s baseball team had experienced this season – from a 3-3 start to 10-game win streak leading into Saturday night’s Class 3A state final at Regency Furniture Stadium – a suicide squeeze attempt was not one of them. So naturally, locked in a scoreless duel with C. Milton Wright in the bottom of the fifth inning, the perfect opportunity to try to squeeze a run home presented itself.
Colin Chan pushed a bunt down the first base line and Riley Finkelston slid headfirst across the plate for the run. That proved more than enough support for Henry Zatkowski.
The junior ace struck out 15 and allowed just one hit in the No. 3 Hawks’ 1-0 victory over the 15th-ranked Mustangs. The state championship is the first for the Howard County program since claiming the 2A crown in 2009.
“That was the first time we suicide-squeezed all year,” said River Hill coach Craig Estrin, whose team capped a 21-4 season. “I had two seniors, so I knew if they picked up the sign – which is always a 50/50 shot – but it they pick up the sign then we have a shot. It all worked.
“You never think it’s enough, but when you have Henry…I like my chances. He’s a freak. He’s playing a different game.”
With the only Baltimore area teams playing on the season’s final day locked in a pitcher’s duel through 4 ½ innings, Finkelston drew a walk to open the home half of the fifth. He stole second and third, and then raced home with the winning run on Chan’s one-out bunt.
“We were working on it all week in practice,” Finkelston said. “Every time we would put down a squeeze in batting practice. It unfolded perfectly. He bunted down the first-base line. It was an easy play getting home. It was huge.”
The senior shortstop had no doubt that the run would stand up with Zatkowski on the mound.
“It’s always like that. I almost never get the ball at shortstop when he’s throwing,” Finkelston said. “I’m just a spectator when he’s throwing.”
Zatkowski, a lanky 6-foot-4 flame thrower committed to Duke University, faced just three over the minimum in his complete game effort. The Mustangs’ Cole Williams reached on a two-out single in the fourth to account for the team’s only hit, and only once in the game did Wright have a runner reach second base.
“I knew I could trust my guys behind me. Everything was working. Everything felt great,” said Zatkowski, who reached a 3-ball count once Saturday. “It just felt like we won the game there. I knew I was in the zone. I knew I was pitching great. All my guys on the bench picked me up on the bench saying, ‘You got this.’ It really pushed me through.”
For his part, Wright starter Thomas Cannavale just about matched his counterpart through four innings. In six innings of work, Cannavale allowed just one hit, walked three and struck out eight.
“It was a well-pitched game. Their pitcher was good, too,” Estrin said. “I kept saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ He wasn’t throwing that hard, but he was mixing it up and was very effective. We just kept battling.”
Two weeks ago, C. Milton Wright’s season was literally on life support, trailing Bel Air, 13-3, and two outs away from being eliminated via the 10-run mercy rule. The Mustangs (19-5) scored the final 11 runs, capped with two run in the bottom of the seventh for an improbable 14-13 victory in the North Region 2 semifinals.
The Harford County school followed with victories over Aberdeen (North Region 2 final), Montgomery County’s Magruder (state quarterfinal) and Huntingtown (state semifinal) to reach its first state 3A final since 2019.
Though handcuffed Saturday night by Zatkowski, C. Milton Wright somehow still had a chance in its final at-bat. Cannavale got hit by Zatkowski to open the frame. Gavin Miller, Cannavale’s courtesy runner, was forced out at second on Ryan Niedzialowski fielder’s choice groundout.
Niedzialowski was forced out at second on Brandon Tolson’s fielder’s choice. Tolson stole second on Zatkowski’s next pitch. A couple of pitches later, Tolson swiped third, putting the Mustangs 90 feet away from tying.
Zatkowski got a heater past a swinging Cam Powers for the final out.
“I just told them this is the life we chose as competitive athletes,” C. Milton Wright coach Mike Amaral said. “You win some, you lose some. We’ve been kind of on a mystery tour the last few games after that Bel Air game. We made sure the last week that we embraced it and we enjoyed it and let it all soak in.
“When you’re one out and one strike away from a 10-run loss to your cross-town rival, and then to come back and keep rolling it’s been magical. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”
A state championship wasn’t the first thought for River Hill after falling to 3-3 after a loss to then-defending Class 2A champ and eventual Howard County league champ Glenelg. The Hawks won their final 11 decisions,
According to Finkelson, one thing that remained constant throughout was the team’s commitment to each other.
“It’s huge leaving the school with a good memory,” Finkelston said. “We started the season 3-3, but we finished 21-4. That was great. We stuck together as a family when we were 3-3, and we’re still a family at 21-4.”
CLASS 3A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
at Regency Furniture Stadium
NO. 3 RIVER HILL 1, NO. 15 C. MILTON WRIGHT 0
C. Milton Wright 000 000 0 - 0 1 0
River Hill 000 100 x - 1 1 1
Cannavale and Herman; Zatkowski and Dang