By Matt Popchock

What hasn’t changed between the last week of March and the first week of May is that the weather has been messy, and fields throughout western Pennsylvania have been messy.

Yesterday, Pine-Richland’s defense was messy, and now, as a result, the Class AAAA Section 1 race is messy.  That much has changed.

Seneca Valley (6-2, 9-2) took what the Rams (7-3, 10-4) and starting pitcher Zac LaNeve, one of the premier hurlers in the WPIAL, gave them, upending them 4-2 on a chilly Wednesday at Pine-Richland High School.

LaNeve pounded the strike zone, moving his pitches early and often, and surrendered just two earned runs, while fanning four hitters and walking one.  However, the Raiders belted 10 hits off the right-hander and North Carolina recruit to hand him his first loss of the season after three victories.

“They’ve owned us for the last three years.  What’s most important is it gets us one step closer to our goal of making the playoffs, which hasn’t occurred yet, but it helps us out a little,” manager Eric Semega said.

The loss drops Pine-Richland into third in Sec. 1-AAAA, despite having the most wins in the section and being tied with Butler for the most wins overall.  Seneca Valley now moves into a first-place tie with the Golden Tornado.  Meanwhile, Shaler and North Allegheny remain on the Rams’ heels and very much in playoff contention.

The turnout, which included scouts, was strong considering it was another unpleasant day in the area, and Seneca Valley’s Matt Smith stole the thunder from his mound opponent, also going the distance in an impressive three-hit triumph.  All those hits came in the Pine-Richland half of the fifth, the only blemish on a scorecard that saw Smith strike out six, walk three, and toss four innings of no-hit baseball.

“I thought Matt had a lot of command and control of his pitches.  He pitched very well today,” Semega said.  “I think this might be the best outing he’s had this year.”

The junior right-hander also held the Rams’ top three hitters without a hit in eight at-bats, and senior shortstop Ryan Hanahan–who entered the week fifth in Quad-A and tops in the section with a .571 average–went 0-for-3, including a pivotal inning-ending double play in that fifth frame.

“I guess I’m a little different from most people.  I don’t think about [the opponent].  I just do what I need to do, go through my regular warm-ups, and just go out there and throw,” Smith said.

J.R. Willard finally broke Pine-Richland into the “H” column with a single up the middle to lead off the fifth.  A four-pitch walk to Shane Heim followed.  Willard scored on Dane Berezo’s hard single to right, and Heim cut Seneca Valley’s lead to two runs when Michael Hess brought him in on another RBI single, loading the bases with one out.  Hanahan then ripped a ball to his right, but a diving stop by second baseman Jack Graham allowed him to tag Hess and throw out Hanahan.

Willard would be the only Ram to reach base in the final two innings, as Smith seemed undaunted by the unusually frigid conditions.

“I just kept trying to move around.  I couldn’t sit still,” Smith explained.

He got some early help from his offense…and from Hanahan, for that matter.  Graham, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI, reached on an infield single with one out in the top of the second, and with two away, Justin Stanger caught a break when Hanahan’s throw to first on his ground ball was errant.  Graham took an extra base and, on the very next pitch, scored the game’s first run on a balk when it was ruled that LaNeve illegally interrupted his motion.

“They gave us outs, and luckily we were able to take advantage,” Semega said.  “They’re a good defensive team, and that’s probably not going to happen very often from them.”

Stanger would get thrown out at the plate on a bang-bang 9-4-2 play in the fourth inning that helped keep Pine-Richland within striking distance.  After Semega and Pine-Richland manager Kurt Wolfe leapt from their respective benches to argue interference, it was Wolfe’s wish that was granted when Stanger was ejected for allegedly smacking into catcher Russell Clark before he had a fair chance to accept the throw from second baseman Zack Sharer.

The controversial play only seemed to fire up Smith, who promptly went out and struck out the side to the delight of a raucous Seneca Valley dugout.

“I felt loose even when it was cold.  Then…when everyone started getting rowdy, I got the juices back in me, and I was fine,” he said.

Fortunately for Stanger that missed opportunity didn’t matter, because Smith was cruising, and Seneca Valley’s offense had gone right back to work in the third.

Christian Durbin singled, part of a 3-for-3 outing that saw him double to right-center twice, and after he moved up on a sacrifice bunt, Brad Gresack brought him in with a line drive that died along the line in shallow left field for a double of his own.  Courtesy runner Brad Collier would go to third on a fielder’s choice and make it 3-0 Seneca when Sharer bobbled Graham’s two-out grounder.

That’s all Smith and the Raiders would need to tack onto a five-game winning streak that seems to have come at the right time, though they still have three section games remaining with one week to go.  Pine-Richland has two.

“As I’ve said to the kids, today our motto is, no excuses.  I don’t care how cold, how wet, how swampy…you have to have a purpose today.  We weren’t going to take this game unless all three aspects were completed.  We pitched, we hit, we played good defense.  If we keep doing that, we are going to be in a lot of games,” Semega said.

“You can’t take anyone lightly, top to bottom,” Smith added.  “But this is a big win for us.”


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

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