---- — It was late in a recent division game when several Midd-West players had a loud exchange outside their dugout. Something angered a number of them and it very suddenly reached a breaking point.
"What was the deal with the whole wheat breadsticks?" one Mustang demanded.
"I know!" replied a teammate. "They better not get rid of the regular ones!"
Several others chimed in before a nearby fan asked the reason for the commotion.
The students, it turned out, had been served whole wheat breadsticks with their pasta at lunch that day and they were none too happy.
"They suck," senior Luke Zimmerman said as he carried a bat to the on-deck circle.
The out-of-the-blue (and borderline hysterical) protest proved just how loose the Mustangs play. There's little between the chalk lines for them to gripe about these days.
They're 7-1, speeding toward a return to the district playoffs and a shot at the title which eluded them after eight scoreless innings of last year's championship game.
"They want to get to where we were last year," Midd-West coach Ron Flood said. "They keep telling me, every night, and they have a countdown. They said (April 9 at Shikellamy), 'Four.' You know, now we have four wins and we're almost halfway there.
"This is them talking, now. So they'll come to me with their countdown, 'Four,' and I'll tell them, 'Yeah, you've still got six to go.'"
District 4 has long rewarded the relative mediocrity of a .500 record with a playoff berth in its sports. But in Heartland-I baseball (and a predecessor, the Susquehanna Valley League), there's no shame in playing .500 ball. Last season, Danville, Selinsgrove and Shikellamy all finished two wins shy of the magic number.
Go ahead and ask any HAC-I coach if he'd sign for 10-10 guaranteed. Be prepared to hand him a pen.
The Mustangs, however, have no intention of stopping at 10 wins, nor will they be satisfied hovering around .500.
They've long known what has taken others more than a year to realize: It wasn't a fluke, as some would call their nine-inning 1-0 loss to three-time champion Jersey Shore in the district final. And it's not luck at the root of their great start.
Midd-West, despite the loss of two all-star pitchers, is likely the Valley's best team.
"We're just average guys playing ball, trying to make it big," said Zimmerman, channeling John Kruk ("I ain't an athlete, lady. ...") when asked how good the Mustangs were. "Nobody gave us a chance last year, and they're saying the same thing this year. ... That's what I hear, anyway.
"We're looking to go back again."
Any doubt in the team stemmed from the graduation of Colton Keister and Austin Hockenbroch, a pair of aces who were responsible for almost all of Midd-West's wins last season. They were both good bets to go the distance whenever they took the ball, and each had a sub-2.00 ERA.
"Pitching-wise, you don't replace two horses like we had, but we have good pitchers," said Flood. "I knew what I had back. We knew we had Hunter (Shuff) back. ... And I've got a sophomore, Aaron Sharp, who's thrown the ball real well. We have (Alex Hackenburg and Ryan Combs) we can go to.
"So I expected good pitching, but I didn't think it'd be great pitching. Right now, my pitching's great. I mean, it's not good. It's great."
The Mustangs' offense has been sparked by the first five bats in the order: Sharp, Eli Stem, Shane Connahan, Zimmerman and Shuff. All have the discipline and confidence to work a count, as well as the ability to make consistent contact and drive a gap.
"The key to us is keeping the other team off the scoreboard and getting a quality base hit when we need it," said Flood. "We've done that all year, and it may quit. It could quit tomorrow. But, no, there's no reason why these kids aren't as good as the team last year. In fact, I think we're a little better hitting-wise and defensively."
Flood was careful not to blow his team's horn last season, coming off a 3-17 year; pride goeth before destruction, and such. But it's difficult, no, ignorant, to deny the Mustangs' promise.
"I never tell them anything about how good they are. You show me how good you are," said Flood. "You keep that countdown -- I don't care. But if you don't get to 10 ..."
Flood's words trailed off into a chuckle.
Of course, if by some calamity the Mustangs don't qualify for districts, you can bet whole wheat breadsticks will be served at the team banquet.
n Scott Dudinskie covers high school baseball for The Daily Item. Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ScottDudinskie.