In the aftermath of the lost year of 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 been a banner, bounce-back year for Mercer County’s scholastic athletics.
That continues today as the PIAA baseball playoffs commence. Slippery Rock University’s Jack Critchfield Park will serve as the site for a triple-header involving newly-minted District 10 championship county contingents against WPIAL opponents.
In Class 1A, Kennedy Catholic collides with D-7 runner-up Riverview at 1 p.m., followed at 3:30 pm. in Class 3A as Hickory meets McGuffey. Two-time D-10 Class 2A kingpin Sharpsville and another WPIAL runner-up, Seton-LaSalle, are set for a 6 p.m. showdown and potential slugfest.
Hickory Head Coach Bob States is in his 1st season at the Hornets’ helm; however, he is no rookie.
“This actually is my 15th year coaching in the program,” States began. “I joined the staff prior to the 2007 season, and enjoyed being a part of the 2007 and 2008 District 10 championship teams.
“In the years since, I have seen how difficult it is to win a district championship in baseball. We have taken some very talented, very hard-working and deserving teams to the district playoffs with hopes of winning the championship, only to run into bad match-ups or hotter teams, or any other number of contributing factors that lead to losses in the playoffs over the years.
“Going through those difficult times absolutely makes winning this year so much sweeter,” States emphasized. “I have to give credit, too, to the three head coaches that preceded me: Gary Hinkson, Mark Thompson and Gray Mackenzie. They all worked so hard for the program and their fingerprints and influences are all over this team and our program’s culture.”
Reflecting back on 2020, States admitted, “Losing last season due to COVID was a theme for this year’s team all year long. In 2019 we lost in the District 10 Finals, so we had high expectations entering last season. So we all really looked at that as an opportunity that was taken from us and that was a huge motivator this year.”
Hickory (17-4) vs. McGuffey (15-5)
The Hornets have been bolstered by the bats of Johnny Leedham (.544, 17 runs scored, 19 RBIs, 14 extra-base hits), Joey Fazzone (.426), 28 runs, 27 RBIs, 3 home runs), Clay Wiesen (.420, 26 runs, 16 RBIs, 10 doubles), Connor Evans (.400, 29 runs, 13 RBIs), Luca Bertolasio (.389, 24 runs, 17 RBIs, 5 home runs), and Matthew Jordan (.320, 14 runs).
“The guys we expected to have big seasons – Connor Evans, Clay Wiesen, Joey Fazzone, Nick Osborne (.286, 14 runs, 17 RBIs), Matt Jordan – all delivered and stayed steady all season,” States said. “Then there were guys that we just weren’t sure about heading into the season, mostly because they just hadn’t gotten much opportunity at the varsity level. But it was a pleasure to see those guys deliver in big situations all season.
“Luca Bertolasio leads the region in home runs; Johnny Leedham has been hitting everything hard for the last six weeks, or so, and led the region in batting average, and Josh Distler delivered clutch hits in big games all season.
“Then on the bases we were deliberately aggressive – stealing bases, taking extra bases on hits and over-throws, executing first- and third-situations, etc. We knew that team speed was a strength entering the season and we wanted to capitalize on that as much as possible by putting pressure on opposing defenses,” States added.
A trio of right-handers – Osborne (5-0, 58 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings, 19 walks, 2.05 ERA); Fazzone (4-1, 22 KOs in 34 1/3 innings, 2.04 ERA), and Evans (3-2, 46 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings, 2:45 ERA) – lead the Stingers’ staff.
“We have arms throughout the program, and I am very excited about some of the young guys we have coming up,” States assessed. “But this year was really about our three, main, upperclassmen pitchers: Nick Osborne, Connor Evans and Joey Fazzone. To get through most of the season using just those few guys really speaks not only to their effectiveness and ability, but also the way they work to stay healthy and bounce back after pitching performances. All three have been highly reliable and have kept us in just about every game all season.”
A senior, Fazzone has the distinction of serving as a starter on a trio of D-10 title teams – football, basketball, baseball – during the 2020-21 academic year, while Evans has two D-10 titles this season (basketball, baseball).
The pitching has been bolstered by stellar defense.
“For the most part our defense was sound for most of the year,” States said, adding, “but we did make some changes right about halfway through the season and those have paid dividends.
“Leading up to the changes, for the most part, Connor Evans had been playing second, Luca Bertolasio was playing right field, and Brandon Boyles – who has been so important by playing multiple positions all year, had been playing a lot of third base. We decided to switch those three around – Connor to third, Luca to second, and Brandon to right – and it really made our defense a lot stronger and we haven’t looked back.
“Additionally,” States added, “we have been extremely strong up the middle all year with Nick Osborne and Johnny Leedham catching, Clay Wiesen playing short, Connor and Luca at 2nd, and Matt Jordan in center.”
Regarding McGuffey, States admitted, “Before this week I didn’t know much at all about McGuffey, but we have been able to get some good notes on them from radio telecasts of some of their previous games, stats from MaxPreps, and we were able to send someone to their game on Wednesday when they beat Avonworth to win the District 7 three-seed and make the PIAA tournament.
“They are a solid team, top to bottom, with quality hitters throughout their lineup and two powerful pitchers,” States assessed. “I expect them to come out with a lot of energy that we will need to match and we know that it will take an A-plus effort on our part to win anymore games this year – and that starts with McGuffey.”
Jake Orr (5-0, 1.32 ERA, 56 KOs in 37 innings) and Austin Beattie (4-1, 2.03 ERA, 50 KOs in 31 innings) lead McGuffey’s moundsmen. Offensively, Orr (.444, 20 runs, 22 RBIs on 20 hits, including 4 homers) and Beattie (.386, 19 runs, 13 RBIs) pace McGuffey. Others Highlanders’ hitters include Logan Hatfield (.538) and Kyle Brookman (.415). Each has scored 15 runs.
States cited, “Upperclassmen leadership” as a key to his 2021 edition.
“I’m a ‘players coach,’ and to me that model only works with very strong team leaders that are capable of not only doing the things they need to do to get better and help the team, but also are willing and able to hold their teammates accountable to make sure they are doing everything necessary to push the team in the right direction. That began beautifully in our offseason workouts where we saw tremendous attendance and participation, led by the upperclassmen that did not play a winter sport, then continued right into the season and went to another level once we got the basketball players after their state title game run.
“This was an especially important element this year as some young guys stepped up and played major roles on our varsity team,” States continued. “Particularly after missing an entire year in our program (due to COVID), the upperclassmen this year did a wonderful job of helping the coaches to get the young guys integrated into our program, demonstrating how things are done, position-specific duties/responsibilities, etc. It really was a pleasure to see that leadership in action all year, and is critical for the development of the program into the future.
Having served as an assistant, States’ staff is much appreciated.
“This is one of the deepest and well-rounded coaching staffs I have ever been around, and there’s been a fabulous rapport among us and with the kids,” States said. “Chris Manzo (3rd-base coach, hitting, base running), Dan Leali (1st-base coach, outfielders), Lou Squatrito (middle-infielders), Mark DiBattise (pitchers), Tom Cannon (catchers), Jason Koerth (Head JV/varsity bench coach). Their effort and commitment all year allowed for highly efficient, organized, and strategic practices all season.”
States summarized: “At the beginning of the season we set two goals: To win the region and the District 10 championship, and it’s very satisfying that we accomplished both of those. In that perspective the 2021 season will be remembered as a success, no matter what happens from here on out. But we talked at practice this week about how we now have a new opportunity in the PIAA tournament to take this program further than we’ve ever been, and the team is fired up to capitalize.
“Winning District 10 is special and this team will be remembered, along with the ‘97, ‘07, and ‘08 teams,” States said in conclusion, “but I am excited to see our team seize this opportunity and, especially for the seniors, to further cement their legacy and end their HHS baseball careers with success on the state stage.”
Sharpsville (18-1) vs. Seton-LaSalle (21-3)
Coach Brian Smith’s Sharpsville squad is stroking the ball at a collective .433 average (1.148 OPS). But if there has been an opposing offense that can match Sharpsville it would appear to be the Seton LaSalle Rebels, who are ripping the ball at a .399 clip (1.093 OPS).
The Blue Devils have been led by Jared Leipheimer (.532, 24 RBIs, 7 doubles), Kaleb Gorichky (.490, 22 runs, 22 RBIs, 3 doubles, 2 home runs), Brock Lenzi (.482, 13 runs, 26 RBIs, 8 doubles, 2 triples, 2 home runs), Steve Tarnoci (.478, 23 runs, 17 RBIs, 7 doubles, 2 triples), Andrew Frye (.442, 16 runs, 19 RBIs, 6 doubles), Jackson Doyle (.419, 23 runs, 17 RBIs, 4 doubles, 4 triples, 2 homers), James Thomas (.412, 13 runs, 13 RBIs), Kolten Eckles (.356, 19 runs, 14 RBIs, 3 doubles, 2 home runs), and Cam Williams (.300, 19 runs, 17 RBIs).
Seton LaSalle standouts include Cameron Colwell (.448, 36 runs, 30 hits, 23 RBIs, 5 doubles, 2 triples, 1 home run), Brian Reed (.447, 16 runs, 22 RBIs on 21 hits, including 3 doubles and 3 homers), Brett Wagner (.429, 31 runs and 30 RBIs on 27 hits, including 5 doubles, 6 triples and 3 homers), Mike Locastro (.423) 16 RBIs on 22 hits), Ethan Parker (.435, 13 RBIs on 10 hits), Gio Lonero (.385, 31 runs, 27 RBIs, 7 doubles), and Sammy Georgiana (.386, 23 RBIs on 22 hits, including 7 doubles).
Left-handers Jack Leipheimer (7-0, 2.96 ERA, 23 strikeouts in 28 1/3) and Lenzi (5-0, 2.80 ERA, 42 strikeouts in 30 innings) lead Sharpsville’s staff (133 strikeouts, versus 74 walks), bolstered by the right-handed Doyle (2-1, 1.05 ERA, 33 KOs in 20 innings pitched).
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder Wagner (7-0, 0.21 ERA) has whiffed 43 in 34 innings. Georgiana (7-1, 1.20) has struck out 68 in 52 1/3 innings, and Parker (5-1, 1.57) has posted 31 KOs in 22 1/3 innings.
Kennedy Catholic (9-10) vs. Riverview (11-7)
For Coach Steve Pinney’s Golden Eagles, Cody May (.482, 18 runs, 27 hits, 21 RBIs, 5 doubles, 10 stolen bases), Santino Multari (.481, 25 runs, 26 hits, 16 RBIs, 4 doubles, 11 steals), and Remington Hart (.333, 20 RBI’s on 20 hits, including 6 doubles) lead the offense.
Right-hander Nick Ondo (3-1, 4.77 ERA, 16 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings), May (3-3, 3.33 ERA, 44 strikeouts in 33 2/3 innings), and Hart (2-2, 20 KO’s in 27 1/3 innings) are mainstays on the mound, complemented by righty reliever Stargell Fuhr (17 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings).
Coach Bill Gras’ Riverview Raiders went hitless and were whitewashed, 3-0, by Union Area southpaw Jake Vitale in the WPIAL title tilt, despite being the No. 7 seed.
Pitcher Enzo Lio, catcher Taylor Zellefrown Daniel Roupas, and Dom Scassera lead the Raiders. Against Union Lio allowed 3 runs (2 earned) on 5 hits and a walk. He struck out 7 in 5 frames, according to The New Castle News.
Gras told The News, “ ... It was tough being down 2-0, But we’ve come back from down five runs. We weren’t worried at that point. I don’t think the third (Union) run put it out of reach for us. We weren’t hitting. I know this team. If we would have started hitting, three runs wasn’t going to be too much. I felt we were still in the ballgame.”
Note: Stats courtesy of MaxPreps.