On June 13, 2019, West Middlesex High’s baseball program made Mercer County history as the Big Reds rolled to the 1st diamond state championship.
When West Middlesex plays its next game, however, is subject to conjecture. Owing to uncertainty relating to the coronavirus pandemic, spring sports coaches do not know when – or if – their teams will compete.
For Middlesex mentor Kevin Hoffman that may mean not having the opportunity to defend the crown, curtailing the Big Reds’ reign after only one year.
“Well ... that would be a huge disappointment,” Hoffman admitted regarding the worst-case scenario. “Coming off the season we had last year the kids are still on a ‘high,’ honestly.
“When you walk into the gym and see that banner hanging, you kind’ve own it. It just makes you look at things a little differently.”
West Middlesex went 23-1 in 2019, including the PIAA Class 1A championship game win over Greenwood (2-1) at Penn State University’s Medlar Field/Lubrano Park.
Aside from the Bob Mitcheltree-coached 1981 Wilmington High squad, no other area diamond team – none from Mercer County, specifically – can claim a commonwealth crown.
Prior to the current statewide shutdown, the Reds commenced conditioning and pitchers were throwing. No sooner had the calendar struck the official opening practice date (March 3), darkness descended upon diamondmen everywhere.
“I really haven’t reached out to (players),” Hoffman began, relating, “I brought home my indoor pitching mound ... I have a garage full of baseballs and (hitting) tees ... nets ... that they can come and get from me any time they want.
“But I haven’t heard anything from my AD (Dustin Burger, one of his 2019 assistants) so I’m staying low key on it. I’ve just told the kids to try and stay prepared the best they can.
“I know a couple have gone out and thrown together, and I do know they’re working out, but I’ve been told to stay away, and I’m not going to jeopardize my position with the kids,” Hoffman emphasized.
Catcher Chase Tomko, pitcher/3rd baseman Garrett Donaldson, and outfielder Derrik Zappa are returning Big Reds. Also, Hoffman has a strong sophomore class that was indoctrinated into his system last season, and a small, but talented freshman class.
“And I got another couple of kids out of the hallways ... “ Hoffman added, citing Luke Atterholt.
Hoffman referred to the aforementioned trio of returnees as his “go-to” guys, noting, “If you’re gonna bring one starter back from the team we had, at least it’s our catcher. He runs my team, and Tomko, he’s a good one,” Hoffman praised.
The first day of spring recently was christened.
Historically, March/April northwestern Pennsylvania weather is not necessarily conducive to playing baseball. So a suspension of the season, while a setback, would not be a death knell.
“I would say that’s a great statement,” Hoffman affirmed. “I was just watching the weather (forecast), and every day I think, ‘Man, I wonder if we’d be able to play today?’ But you know, if we do get a short season – throwing the region games together, or a round-robin (tournament), or whatever – this is for the kids’ sake. It’d be nice for them to have an opportunity, even if (PIAA) just ‘brackets’ us up and we play for District 10 or the region ...
“It’s for the kids’ sake,” Hoffman reiterated, quickly cautioning, “but everybody’s health is what’s most important.”
However, Hoffman did admit frustration that NCAA programs already have been shuttered for the season. His son, Kaz – a 2019 Big Reds’ standout – is a Grove City College freshman.
“It’s a shame for those seniors,” the elder Hoffman said, later adding in regard to the scholastic season, “It’d be nice to get goin’ again ... the hardest part – not only for our program, but everybody’s – is the excitement the kids have, looking forward to playin’ baseball. You have only so many opportunities, and the weather already dictates a lot of that. ... It’s hard for everybody right now.”
Borrowing from a conventional baseball bromide, Hoffman reasoned, “Early in the year pitching’s always ahead, so that’s probably where we’re (he and assistants Kolten Hoffman and Adam Novotny) concerned the most – we lost so many good hitters from last year.”
But “staying positive,” as he termed it, Hoffman has an ambition he’d like to replicate from last season, provided that COVID-19 is corraled sometime soon.
“I preached to ‘em (his players) last year, ‘I’ve got a date in mind,’ and I’ve got the same date in mind this year: Get me to June eleventh,” Hoffman related, “I’m sure it’ll be Bishop McCort again (in the regional finale, which West Middlesex won, 6-3, last spring). ... I’ve got it all laid out, and my philosophy on coaching has not changed; I’m still preachin’ we’ll be playin’ baseball on June eleventh ...
“ ... so,” he said, sending a message to his players, “just get me there.”
An observer wished his family good health, with the hope he and Hoffman would next speak at an upcoming West Middlesex High baseball game.
“I’d love that!” without hesitating, Hoffman replied.