By Matt Popchock
The last sporting event of the 2010-11 academic year gets underway Friday with a few firsts at stake.
Serra Catholic has gotten its act together since Chartiers-Houston upset the two-time district champion Eagles in the WPIAL Semifinals. Decisive wins over Elk County Catholic, Bishop Carroll, and Mercyhurst in the state playoffs have put Serra in position to win its first PIAA title, and it’s already the first team to make it to three title games in a row since the PIAA Baseball Championships began in 1979.
The other WPIAL survivor is Riverside, which fought for wins over Karns City, Saegertown, and Martinsburg Central in the state tournament. The Panthers aim to become the first WPIAL team in history to win three PIAA baseball crowns after winning them back-to-back in 2005 and 2006.
Meanwhile, the only District 7 team to reach the PIAA Softball Championships is Class AAA titlist Valley, which is trying to win its first-ever state championship in its first state final appearance. In between narrow victories over Punxsutawney and Bellefonte, the Vikings nipped WPIAL champion Yough to get there.
A couple of firsts have already been etched in stone. For the first time ever the PIAA Baseball Championships will be played at Medlar Field at Penn State’s Lubrano Park, and the PIAA Softball Championships have moved to the brand-new Nittany Lion Softball Park on the PSU campus.
Here’s what you need to know about the three games involving WPIAL teams:
PIAA CLASS A BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Serra Catholic (20-2) vs. Reading Central Catholic (11-13) – Friday, 1:00
THE INSIDE PITCH: Can the Cinderella Cardinals of District 3, who barely snuck into the playoffs, find a way to hit Alain Girman? The Serra Catholic ace has pitched with a renewed purpose since a shaky outing against Carmichaels in the WPIAL Quarterfinals and will seek his 24th career varsity win in as many tries. He needs five strikeouts on Friday to reach 100 for the season. Furthermore, can Girman collect a few more hits of his own? He’s batting .438 with 22 RBI and nine extra base hits. Chris Miller, with a robust .638 average and eight postseason RBI, will be the real hitter to watch, however. It’s a tough task for Reading C.C. to contain this offense, but its own offense has come to life in the state playoffs with 19 runs in three rounds. Girman will have to worry about Mike Bean and Taylor Hafer, who went a combined 8-for-8 in the Semifinals, at the top of the order. He’ll also have to worry about keeping in check the emotions of Reading C.C., which is playing its last game before closing for good and merging with Holy Name School District to form Berks Catholic High School.
PIAA CLASS AA BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Riverside (19-5) vs. Salisbury Township (20-6) – Friday, 3:30
THE INSIDE PITCH: The Panthers, after narrowly escaping Waynesburg at CONSOL Energy Park, have proven they can heat up their bats at will, and they may need that power against the Falcons’ explosive offense. Although Riverside certainly has the edge in terms of experience, Salisbury has a legitimate ace in Zach Harper, who has gone 8-2 with a 1.72 ERA and 75 strikeouts against just 29 walks. Look for Harper to try and help his own cause with his team-leading .395 average and 33 RBI. Most of the Falcons’ power comes from its young infield, led by Brad Vingoli, who enters the contest hitting .378 with 28 RBI at third base. Riverside’s offense seems to go whichever direction Ryan Finnegan goes; the shortstop/pitcher is hitting .426 and slugging .882 with 25 RBI and eight homers. But he has gotten help from guys like Tyler Falk, who has hit safely in ten of his last 11 games. Riverside’s success may very well depend on whether it can keep making contact and make Harper throw a lot of pitches.
PIAA CLASS AAA SOFTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Valley (17-2) vs. Manheim Central (25-4) – Friday, 5:00
THE INSIDE PITCH: Following an emotional win over Yough and Nicole Sleith, one of the premier pitchers in the state, not to mention a heartbreaking loss in last year’s state playoffs on a controversial balk call, Valley pitcher Caitlin Nealer has been pretty much at the top of her own game. The Vikings have proven they can win any way imaginable, and they’ve shown the character of a champion by winning each of their state playoff games by one run, posting two shutouts in the process. The Barons, who play several underclassmen, have also showed mettle by winning close games in these PIAA playoffs, but unless they can play some serious small ball (and the Vikings’ defense really lets them down), don’t be surprised if and when Valley’s season ends with a gold medal ceremony.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)