ALLENTOWN – Confidence.
You can't have it without success, but you can't be successful without it.
That's what makes it so crucial, yet so elusive.
It can be the difference between close losses and narrow victories. It doesn't happen overnight, but when you get it, you can become an overnight success.
It can be the magical ingredient that turns a frustrating 5-15 season into a memorable district championship run.
The Tamaqua baseball team's incredible bounce-back season achieved another milestone on Wednesday when the Raiders edged Southern Lehigh, 4-3, for the District 11 Class AAA championship.
Tamaqua's first district title since 2003 has been the result of many factors. The Raiders have won with dominating pitching (seven shutouts). They have beaten the opposition playing small ball (22 sacrifices) and long ball (12 home runs). They have four mercy-rule victories and nine victories by two runs or less.
But from their senior pitcher to their freshman pinch-hitter and from their workhorse catcher to their veteran coach, there was one common theme in the postgame interviews – confidence.
Whether they were talking about their own individual accomplishments or the team's achievements, it was obvious that the Raiders were a confident group entering yesterday's game.
Josh Zehner started on the mound for Tamaqua. The No. 2 man on the staff, Zehner got the nod despite the fact that Tuesday's rainout gave staff ace Brett Kosciolek the needed amount of rest to be cleared to pitch.
Zehner said he wanted the ball and also loved the confidence Raider coach Jeff Reading displayed in him by giving the start.
"Coach told me Tuesday at practice that I was still going to start on Wednesday," said Zehner. "It was a Wednesday," said Zehner. "It was a nice confidence boost for me that coach Reading believed enough in me to start me with the district championship on the line.
"It was the most nervous I've ever been in my life for a baseball game, but at the same time, I never doubted that I could get the job done. I was confident that I would do the job."
Zehner allowed just a pair of runs in five innings of work to earn the pitching victory.
"Definitely the biggest win of my life," he said after the game.
For freshman Matt Minchhoff, Wednesday's championship game presented a new challenge. Minchhoff has been a starter for most of the season. Yesterday, with Dylan Delay returning from an injury, Minchhoff came up to bat as a pinch hitter for the first time all season.
"I just wanted to stay relaxed at the plate and get a good pitch to hit," said Minchhoff. "I was confident that if I stayed patient and got my pitch I could have some success. He threw me something off-speed and I was able to put a pretty good swing on it."
Minchhoff's swing was more than pretty good. His line drive single to right scored Nate McDonald with the tying run in the bottom of the fourth inning. A couple of batters later, he scored the go-ahead run on a Matt Roberts' RBI single.
Luke Matsago is one of Tamaqua's senior leaders. He entered the game with a .316 batting average and 14 RBIs, but his biggest contribution is the work he does behind the plate handling Tamaqua's talented pitching staff.
"Hard work and confidence have been the keys for us this season," said Matsago. "No one was happy with last year's record. So we worked hard in the off-season and we challenge ourselves and each other every day at practice."
Matsago reached base three times against Southern Lehigh and also had the game's key defensive play when he picked a Spartan runner off second base to end a threat in the sixth inning.
"Today's game was the type of game we lost last year," he said. "But this year, we believe we are going to find a way to win. Every one of our postseason games has been close in the late innings and we've found a way to pull them out. We're confident that someone is going to step up and make a play."
Reading, in his 12th year as Tamaqua's head coach, said a number of factors have aligned during a season in which the Raiders have won 17 games and captured Schuylkill League and District 11 championships,
"A little bit of everything," he said when asked what has allowed Tamaqua to turn things around this year after three straight sub .500 seasons. "But I think the big things are that we are a little more experienced and a lot more confident.
"The kids believe. They are confident in their abilities."
Maybe it was the 7-1 start to the season. Maybe it was the three consecutive shutout victories to open Schuylkill League play. Maybe it was the way they bounced back from consecutive losses to beat perennial power Blue Mountain at the midway point of the season. Maybe it was a combination of all those things.
But somehow, somewhere during the course of the season, Tamaqua developed confidence.
That's a huge reason why 2013 has turned into a championship season.