By Matt Popchock
As he gasses up his car and gets ready to make the trek to CONSOL Energy Park in Washington, PA, Mr. High School Sports is trying to think of all the big names to keep an eye on Tuesday and Wednesday evening.
Although Zak Sinclair won’t be at the 2011 WPIAL Baseball Championships, his name is inevitably the first that comes to mind.
Sinclair pitched West Allegheny to a complete-game victory over Blackhawk in the 2007 Class AAA Final, and with that triumph the ’07 Indians became the most recent undefeated team in WPIAL baseball history to win gold. The others were Bishop Canevin in 1993 and Freeport in 1979.
Elizabeth Forward is trying to become the fourth. The top-seeded and unbeaten Warriors are going for their first district title in baseball in over 30 years. In an exhibition tournament at Disney World in Orlando, EF ran the table against teams from Maryland, Colorado, and Ohio. Elizabeth Forward has since shut out eight WPIAL opponents prior to playoff wins over Greensburg-Salem and Chartiers Valley, reaching double-digits in 12 games overall against WPIAL competition.
Another name that comes to mind is Joe Maize. He’s been managing the program at Peters Township for the last quarter-century, and his Indians will be going for their third WPIAL Class AAAA in five years this week.
The Indians would be in the same historic boat as Elizabeth Forward if not for an early-season loss to Sumter High School of Sumter, SC in the Southeastern Classic tournament. Since then, Peters Township, the popular preseason favorite in Quad-A, has won 16 in a row overall and ran the table against WPIAL competition, including playoff decisions over Latrobe and Butler.
In the meantime, here’s what else you need to know about the WPIAL Baseball Championships:
Chartiers-Houston (12-6) vs. Neshannock (20-1) – Tuesday, 5:30
The Lancers, one of three one-loss teams in this year’s championships, defeated Beth-Center and California in close fashion after entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and earning a first-round bye. The Buccaneers, the No. 5 seed, took a slightly more circuitous route to the championship contest, defeating Avonworth and Western Beaver before pulling off perhaps the upset of the year, a decisive win over two-time champ Serra Catholic. Neshannock, in pursuit of its fourth WPIAL title all-time and first since 2004, has won 19 in a row.
THE INSIDE PITCH: Neshannock has the kind of pitching depth that can stifle anyone’s bats, though in the postseason it has needed all the offense it could get, led by WPIAL regular season batting champion John Sansone, who has done it all for the Lancers with a .680 regular season average. Chartiers-Houston ace Dylan Pounds, a probable starter, needs to minimize the damage early and do some of his own at the plate. Chartiers-Houston got by Serra with a late rally and needs to show more of that patience on offense. If Neshannock does get an early lead, it needs to do whatever it takes to gradually build that lead, and hope that it can continue to get strong innings from Joe Cioffi, one of only three eight-win pitchers in the WPIAL during the regular season.
Riverside (15-5) vs. Waynesburg (18-1) – Wednesday, 5:30
The Panthers picked a good year to enter the Class AA tournament as the No. 5 seed, because this season there didn’t seem to be a clear-cut favorite in that bracket. They got the bats going against Freedom and Deer Lakes, then hung on to defeat section rival Mohawk for the third time in 2011 to reach CONSOL Energy Park. After a loss to Beth-Center in their lid-lifter, the Red Raiders ripped off 18 consecutive wins, including playoff victories over Freeport, Frazier, and Laurel as the No. 3 seed. Riverside is going for its first WPIAL title since 2006 and third all-time, while Waynesburg is going for its second championship since capturing its only title in 1999.
THE INSIDE PITCH: Waynesburg has an outstanding pitcher in Joe Monica who was among the WPIAL wins leaders, and he can also hit exceptionally well. Riverside needs to avoid a high number of strikeouts and keep the ball in play, as this offense is good enough to scratch out runs against just about anybody. Furthermore, the Panthers have two big boppers in their lineup in Ryan Finnegan and Tyler Falk, each of whom homered five times during the regular season. But Steve McCaw of the Raiders was not to be outdone with seven, and he is an RBI machine, so whichever team can out-slug the other, seemingly, will come out on top.
Elizabeth Forward (20-0) vs. Hampton (16-3) – Wednesday, 8:00
The Warriors picked up eight wins by at least ten runs during the regular season, then, after earning the top seed in Class AAA and a first-round bye and making short work of Greensburg-Salem, earned another mercy-rule win in unusual fashion, falling into a big early hole before exploding against Chartiers Valley. The Talbots overcame a rocky start by winning 15 in a row and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed. They too earned a first-round bye before knocking off Thomas Jefferson and defending champion Hopewell. Hampton is going for its first title ever in baseball, while Elizabeth Forward is trying to recapture the glory of its lone WPIAL championship season in 1976.
THE INSIDE PITCH:
Although stranger things have happened in postseason play, it’ll probably take the performance of a lifetime for Hampton pitcher Joe Vita to contain EF’s offense, one of the deepest in the WPIAL. The key to this game for the Talbots will be the ability of Vita and/or their other hurlers to minimize the damage done by the Warrior bats, because to try and win a shootout with that team is an unrealistic proposition. Elizabeth Forward boasts one of the WPIAL’s most complete players in Dan Altavilla, one of two eight-game winners in the district, who also hit six home runs during the regular season. EF also has terrific hitters in Cole Quattrone and John Kutzfara who can help him put up crooked numbers, and if the Warriors get those numbers, Hampton is in trouble.
Peters Township (19-1) vs. Seneca Valley (15-3) – Tuesday, 8:00
The Indians, after tearing through the regular season portion of their District 7 schedule, earned a first-round bye then mercy-ruled Latrobe before extending their aforementioned winning streak to 16 by hanging on to defeat Butler. The Raiders won eight of their last nine and entered the Quad-A playoffs as the No. 3 seed before pitching their way to the title matchup with victories over Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Upper St. Clair, and Bethel Park. Seneca Valley is trying to win gold for the first time since its only championship in 1994. Meanwhile, not only is Peters Township trying to win its third title in five seasons, but it is also trying to become the first Class AAAA team to win three since the WPIAL added a fourth classification for baseball in 2005.
THE INSIDE PITCH: As pitcher Matt Smith goes, so go the Raiders. He had perhaps his best stuff of the year in the WPIAL Semifinals against Bethel Park, and for Seneca to pull the upset, he’ll need even more. Seneca Valley’s offense, including top hitter Christian Durbin, needs to stroke the ball better than it did the last two playoff rounds, because Peters Township showed in coming from behind against Butler that you can only keep the Indians down at the plate for so long. Peters is led by Pitt recruit Justin Bianco, a solid all-around hitter, and although Andrew Erenberg may be a key to run production, Peters can hit anywhere in the lineup. Rick Minteer has been pretty consistent on the mound for the Indians this season, but bottom line, this is probably going to come down to Seneca’s pitching versus Peters Township’s hitting.