By Matt Popchock
There wasn’t much that could stop Neshannock from capturing last year’s WPIAL baseball championship in Class A. But in order to collect their fifth in program history, the Lancers (19-2) will need to bring Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (16-5) down from heaven after the miracle it performed against former two-time district champion Serra Catholic.
The Chargers have won 12 of their last 13 overall, including a 6-5 walk-off upset of the Eagles in last week’s quarterfinal round. Preston Falascino led the team during the regular season with 23 RBI, and he also kept OLSH in the hunt by pitching his way to a 7-1 mark and collecting 73 strikeouts, which ranked sixth in the WPIAL.
The Lancers extended their winning streak to 17 games last week with a 9-5 victory over Chartiers-Houston in quarterfinal competition, and, at one point, they racked up double-digit runs in 11 straight contests. Leading the way for Neshannock is WPIAL regular season batting champion John Sansone, who hit .660, belted six home runs, scored 26 times, and drove in 36 runs during the regular campaign. Sansone finished in the top five in three of the four aforementioned categories, in fact.
First pitch at Chippewa Park is set for 5:00 Monday, and the other Class A Semifinal, pitting Bentworth (17-1) against unbeaten California (18-0), doesn’t get away at Washington & Jefferson College until 7:30.
The Trojans are trying for their third WPIAL title and first since 2006. They defeated the Bearcats in the 2011 playoffs, and this year they ran the table behind an explosive lineup led by T.D. Conway, who finished right behind Sansone with a .596 batting average. Conway, who ranked fourth in the district with 33 RBI entering the postseason, won a WPIAL-best 11 regular season games and finished second overall with 90 K’s.
Bentworth coasted to the A-Sec. 2 crown thanks to Tyler Delval, who led the team with a .532 average, six homers, and 26 RBI. Delval entered the playoffs with a 7-0 record as its top pitcher.
Each of the Class AA Semifinals will get underway at around 4:00. Riverside (17-5) will take on Shady Side Academy (17-2) at the Burkett Complex in Robinson Township, while South Fayette (15-6) will battle Ellwood City (19-2) at North Allegheny High School.
Before defending its PIAA championship Riverside will try to capture its second straight district title. The ambitions of that program have not changed one bit, but the Panthers have found new leadership in the form of pitcher Blaise McCarty, who powered the Panthers with a 5-2 regular season record and 52 strikeouts.
They shared a section title with Ellwood City, whereas Shady Side Academy won AA-Sec. 4 outright. The Indians, in search of their second WPIAL championship in four seasons, have won 16 of their last 17 overall, including a 4-3 decision over 2011 silver medalist Waynesburg Central in the first round. Ben Hartz paced the offense with a .489 average, five homers, and 22 RBI, while also leading the pitchers with a 6-1 record and 48 K’s during the regular campaign.
Speaking of Ellwood City, they’ll be going for their fifth WPIAL baseball crown all-time, though the Wolverines haven’t donned district gold since 2003. They’ve got some pretty strong bats in the middle of this year’s lineup, but the real strength of this team seems to be its pitching depth. Anthony Carusone strong-armed his way to a perfect 7-0 record entering the playoffs, and Christian Kerns ranked in the WPIAL top ten with 71 strikeouts, posting an impressive 8-2 mark.
On the other hand, this territory is somewhat uncharted for South Fayette. That school won its only championship in baseball back in 1999 as a member of Class A–the year the WPIAL expanded to three classifications for baseball (Quad-A wasn’t added till 2005)–but the Lions can’t be taken lightly after rattling off 11 wins in their last 12 outings. Pitcher Zach Walker led the Lions with a 6-1 mark in regular season play.
Meanwhile, the off-season was a trying one for perennial power Hopewell, seeking its second district title in three years, which mourned the loss of WPIAL Hall of Fame manager Joe Colella, but the Vikings (18-3) have thrived under new head coach Joe Rubino. After winning 11 in a row at one point, and edging Greensburg-Salem in the quarterfinals, they’ll match up against Belle Vernon (17-4) at Washington & Jefferson College Monday at 5:00.
Stefon Mrkonja has done it all for Hopewell, hitting four homers and posting a 5-1 record to lead a very well-rounded rotation during the regular campaign. He also drove in 23 runs to lead his club in that category. The Leopards, who shared the AAA-Sec. 2 title, also have a powerful, game-changing hitter in Adam Ferita, who clubbed his way to a .456 average and scored 22 runs.
Most eyes, however, might be on the pitchers’ duel in the other Class AAA Semifinal affair, which features upstart Thomas Jefferson (19-2) and Pitt recruit Greg Schneider. He’ll oppose Blackhawk (15-4), which seeks its first title since 2004, and hopes Brandon McKay can get them there.
When Schneider toes the rubber at North Allegheny High School at 7:00 Monday, he might even have a couple major-league scouts watching, if manager Rich Krivanek has anything to say about it. Schneider is 8-0 with a 0.16 ERA, and has not allowed a run in 24 straight innings. McKay enters this contest with a 6-1 overall mark and a 0.60 ERA.
Defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion Seneca Valley will also need strong pitching from last year’s playoff hero, Matt Smith, who entered this postseason with a 5-1 record and 57 K’s. The Raiders (16-4) face a prolific offense in Pittsburgh Central Catholic (17-4), which split the AAAA-Sec. 4 crown with Plum, at 5:00 at Upper St. Clair High School.
The Vikings are led by big bopper M.P. Buckley, who led the WPIAL during the regular season with eight homers and 40 RBI. Pitcher Dan Smith mirrored Matt Smith’s numbers with a 5-1 regular season record and 55 punch-outs.
Waiting for one of those teams at CONSOL Energy Park will be either AAAA-Sec. 2 runner-up North Allegheny (13-9) or mildly surprising Mount Lebanon (13-8), who face each other at the Burkett Complex at 7:00. After some early-season woes, the 2009 district champion Tigers have gotten great pitching, having allowed over three runs in just one game since Apr. 12. Keep an eye on Justin Datillo, who went 3-for-4 with two RBI against Hempfield in the quarters and drove in the winning run against Gateway in the first round.
The Blue Devils feature Ian Happ, who batted .484 with five homers and 23 RBI during the regular season, and they defeated N.A., 9-6, in a non-section game Mar. 28.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)