By Matt Popchock

Just because Hopewell is off to a hot start coming off a WPIAL title last season didn’t mean Joe Colella’s team had nothing to prove against district runner-up Moon.

“When you meet those kind of teams, you have to show you can compete, and we did today,” the Vikings’ manager of 48 seasons said.

Hopewell (4-0, 7-1) indeed demonstrated for the time being that nothing has changed since the previous spring with a 15-7 victory over the reeling Tigers (0-3, 0-3) in Class AAA Section 1 play at McCormick Elementary Field in Moon Township on a dreary, overcast Monday.

Suddenly Moon must find a way out of the Section 1 basement, while Hopewell, winners of five straight, opened up an early one-and-a-half game lead on Blackhawk and New Castle.

“It felt good, especially considering they’re supposedly one of the top teams we’ll play,” sophomore starting pitcher Tim Hughes said.

“It was a slow start, but I feel I came on stronger toward the end.”

Judging by the way both starting pitchers began, you’d never know these teams met at CONSOL Energy Park less than a year ago.  A first inning that was sloppier than the field conditions on this rainy day saw Hughes and his counterpart, Andy Grace, combine to allow seven runs on just two hits.  The inning featured five walks, three hit batsmen, four wild pitches, and a passed ball.

“He wasn’t as sharp as he usually is.  He threw a lot of pitches, and got himself in trouble a lot,” Colella said of Hughes.  “But fortunately we were able to get some runs for him.”

Hughes got some of those runs himself in the top of the first.  With only one out and the bases full of Vikings, he connected on a 3-2 pitch and got just enough on his towering shot to clear the right field fence for a grand slam.  Just like that, Hopewell had a 4-0 lead on its first hit of the game.

“He gave me my pitch, that’s all,” Hughes said.  He ended 2-for-3 with six RBI.

The offensive mojo was contagious.  Hughes gave up a leadoff single, plunked Jesse Dempsey, and walked Dan Jeffreys, then catcher Julian Spinosi hit a deep fly to center field on which Hopewell’s Stefan Mrkonja made a nice falling catch.  He was down long enough for two runners to score, though Colella came onto the field and argued to no avail that they had not tagged up properly.

Following Spinosi’s sac fly, Jeffreys would close the gap to 4-3 after reaching third on a passed ball and scoring on a wild pitch, but that’s as close as Moon would get.  Hughes got the first of his seven strikeouts on the day with two in scoring position to end the ugly frame.  He would end the day scattering six hits and three walks in four-plus innings to pick up the victory, and just three of the six runs he allowed were earned.

Oddly enough, an inning that saw each team send eight to the plate was followed by a 1-2-3 frame for both.  Hopewell’s bats heated up, however, in the top of the third, which saw the Vikings bat around and open up their lead to 10-3.  A two-run single by Hughes closed the book on losing pitcher Grace, who lasted just two-plus innings, and allowed seven runs (six earned) on four hits, walking three.

Joe Kunzmann’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly to right brought home Hughes’ courtesy runner, Rushel Shell (yep, same one), and senior right fielder Brett Reisker’s two-run triple on a payoff pitch put Hopewell squarely in the driver’s seat.

“I hung in there, saw my pitch, and took it,” Reisker said.

Seth Steel rounded out the onslaught by scoring Reisker on a ground out to short.  Even though the Tigers’ offense, moving forward, also hit the ball well, Reisker’s knock seemed to put the game out of reach.  Moon did avoid succumbing to the mercy rule by scratching together three runs off four hits in the fourth and fifth innings.

“Give Moon credit, they never quit,” Colella said.

But the hosts could never get going against reliever Arion Sepp, who pitched the final three innings and retired seven of eight hitters at one point.

Among the offensive stars in the opposing dugout were Mrkonja, who went 2-for-3 with three runs scored, and first baseman Matt Critchlow, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI.  Five of Hopewell’s 11 hits came with men in scoring position.

It appears the Vikings, who have now scored in double figures five times this season, and four in their last five contests, have picked up where they left off in Washington County.

“We had some inexperience coming into this year, but everyone’s been stepping up,” Reisker said.  “We’ve played well defensively, and we’ve hit the ball when it counted.”

For continuing coverage of WPIAL baseball, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2011 season!

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