By Matt Popchock
This is something Mr. High School Sports hasn’t done in a while, and with the 2010-11 scholastic sports season having drawn to a close, he figures, better now than never.
He’d like to take a couple minutes to salute 12 of the top WPIAL performers from the district and state baseball and softball playoffs. It was a big year for Serra Catholic and Riverside, which went home with PIAA gold medals in baseball, and for Valley, which did the same in softball for the first time in its history.
It took some exceptional individual performances to make all that happen, but there were plenty of other great efforts by local student-athletes in the 2011 postseason that bear recognition.
So without further ado, here is, in no particular order, Mr. High School Sports’ “Diamond Dozen” for the 2011 WPIAL and PIAA Baseball/Softball Playoffs:
Caitlin Nealer, Valley: She was probably the most consistent pitcher in the WPIAL from the first pitch in March to the final out of the Vikings’ first-ever PIAA softball title last Friday. Faced with a daunting move up to Class AAA, she pitched her team to the district semifinals, then, in the PIAA Final against Manheim Central, the final outing of her high school career, Nealer yielded just two hits and struck out ten in a 3-1 gold-medal win, retiring 14 straight at one point.
Casey Moses, Burrell: Not only did she show deceptive power as a hitter, but she displayed the ability to wiggle her way out of some tough jams as a hurler en route to Burrell’s WPIAL Class AA title coronation. In the Semifinals against scrappy South Allegheny, Moses provided a game-winning two-run home run and struck out seven, leaving runners on first and third with one out in the sixth. In the Finals against Greensburg C.C., she came through with a game-winning RBI single and later pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the heart of their order to secure the victory.
Ashley Perillo, Latrobe: Imagine how tough it is for a freshman to even make the varsity squad at a top-notch Quad-A program never devoid of team leaders, let alone make an impact, but the freshman catcher/designated player really turned some heads in the postseason. In the WPIAL Class AAAA Final against Seneca Valley she belted a three-run homer to give the Wildcats a lead they never surrendered, and later hit a game-winning solo shot to give Latrobe a PIAA Quarterfinal win over McDowell.
Nicole Sleith, Yough: One of the most dominant pitchers in the state each of the past two seasons was anxious to finish her District 7 career on a high note, and despite some defensive miscues, she did. Only one of the two runs she surrendered in the WPIAL Final against Ambridge was earned, as Sleith struck out 15, allowed just four hits, and scored the go-ahead run in the fifth to lift the Cougars to their first-ever district softball crown.
Kayla Briggs, Chartiers-Houston: Throughout the 2011 campaign the story of this Class A juggernaut was its pitching (more on that later), but the contributions of this young battery-mate should not be overlooked. She hit an ominous home run in her team’s first WPIAL playoff game against Western Beaver that cemented a win, and hit an early three-run dinger against Fort Cherry that opened the door for the Bucs’ 24th straight win at the time. Briggs ended with five RBI in the championship victory.
Kayla Haslett, Ambridge: Although the Bridgers once again had to settle for silver in the WPIAL Championships, their pitcher delivered one of the most impressive performances of the Semifinals. Haslett out-dueled Nealer at North Allegheny, striking out three and allowing just five total base runners on three hits, while driving in an insurance run in Ambridge’s 2-0 triumph over Valley.
Dan Altavilla, Elizabeth Forward: He had perhaps greater expectations than any starting pitcher to live up to in the WPIAL Championships, but he battled hard against a Hampton squad that tried in vain to wear him down and controlled the game virtually from start to finish. Altavilla’s no-hit bid was spoiled in the sixth, but the Warriors’ ace still managed ten K’s with just two walks and supplied an RBI double to help EF become just the fourth district champ to go unbeaten.
Alex Strittmatter, Neshannock: He may have carried mental baggage into CONSOL Energy Park after getting shelled in last year’s WPIAL title game, but this year was a much different story. The Lancers were notorious for their powerful offense in 2011, but in the WPIAL Class A Final against high-flying Chartiers-Houston, it was Strittmatter who played the role of show-stopper with a two-hit victory in which he struck out seven and retired 16 of 17 Buccaneers at one point.
Alain Girman, Serra Catholic: Although his Eagles fell short of expectations in the district playoffs, Girman helped them leave little doubt about who was the best Class A team in the state. In the PIAA Final against upstart Reading Central Catholic, he fanned 13, walked just one, and allowed only three base runners in a 4-0 masterpiece, shaking off a tough-luck no-decision in last year’s state title game loss. Girman ended the postseason with an ERA under 1.00 and has never lost a varsity game.
Ryan Finnegan, Riverside: One of the top power hitters in the WPIAL during the regular campaign brought his big stick to CONSOL Energy Park, and later, to Penn State. Finnegan’s solo home run against Waynesburg pulled the Panthers even in the Class AA district title game, and in the PIAA Class AA Final Friday against Salisbury Township, he provided a crucial three-run bomb en route to state gold–Finnegan’s third consecutive PIAA game with a homer.
Christian Durbin, Seneca Valley: It’s rare to see a team with significant power at the bottom of its order, but Durbin provided that extra burst in the WPIAL Class AAAA Final against top-seeded Peters Township. A go-ahead three-run home run off Rick Minteer sparked Seneca’s surprisingly one-sided upset of the Indians, and he followed it up with a 3-for-3, three-RBI performance in the PIAA Playoffs against McDowell.
Cory Callan, Hampton: He was a great presence in the Talbots’ offense during a hot streak that carried the team to the WPIAL Semifinals, where Callan’s two-run single in the bottom of the seventh produced a walk-off upset of mighty Hopewell, the defending Class AAA champion.
Be sure to revisit 937thefan.com later this week as Mr. High School Sports salutes his top regular season performers from the WPIAL in his final “Diamond Dozen” of 2011!