By Matt Popchock

There’s nothing that says spring like the crack of the bat, the smell of freshly-cut grass, and a steady snowfall?!  Nope, you weren’t dreaming, that was the white stuff you saw last week, right smack in the middle of high school baseball season.

Despite the stubbornness of Mother Nature, the first full week of the 2011 WPIAL regular campaign has come and gone with minimal interruption.  It has given Mr. High School Sports the opportunity to gauge the teams to beat and players to watch.

Between Neil Walker becoming one of the hottest rookies in MLB and the Rams winning district gold, 2010 was a pretty good year for Pine-Richland.  Beaver County asserted its diamond dominance with WPIAL titles for Hopewell and Beaver Falls.  Serra Catholic successfully defended its district crown, and has its sights set on the three-peat.

Can the Eagles get there?  Will any of the other three defend their titles, and can anyone end the WPIAL’s title drought at states?  Who shall lead them?  Without further ado, here’s what’s happening at a park near you:


Peters Township – Brady Sheetz led the Indians with a .681 slugging percentage, and his five home runs were tied for third in Quad-A.  Austin Hancock’s .451 batting average led the team, as he drove in 23 runs.  Ryan Minteer, the Indians’ top returning pitcher, finished last year 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA.  Outfielder Justin Bianco, a Pitt recruit, hit .406, slugged .594, and scored 22 runs without committing a single error.  The Indians look like the team to beat not just in Section 4, but in all of Class AAAA after bowing to North Allegheny in the WPIAL Semifinals.

North Allegheny – Coastal Carolina recruit Tanner Wilt will anchor the Tigers’ starting staff after finishing 2010 with a 5-1 record and 59 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.  Catcher Cody Gaertner is headed to Ohio U. along with outfielder Bruce Nikithser, and they lead what should once again be a very potent lineup.  For NA, which lost to Pine-Richland in last year’s district title game, its biggest roadblock is the Rams, to say nothing of the rest of Section 1, one of the strongest in the WPIAL.

Pine-Richland – After an emotional year in which manager Kurt Wolfe led the Rams to the WPIAL Class AAAA championship while battling cancer, the Rams are ready to chase another.  As long as they can tread water in Section 1 yet again, a successful title defense is not outside the realm of possibility.  Young catcher Russell Clark showed promise with three of PR’s nine hits in the WPIAL title game.  North Carolina recruit Zac LaNeve tied for fifth in Quad-A with 25 runs scored.

Norwin – The Knights were at the head of the class in Section 2, and there doesn’t seem to be much shame in losing to then-defending WPIAL champ North Allegheny in the district quarterfinals.  But Section 2 wasn’t–and isn’t–perceived as a particularly tough one, so it’ll be interesting to see if Norwin can play the role of dark horse.  Max McDowell paced them with a .458 batting average (27 hits), and Youngstown State recruit Jason Shirley earned all-section honors in the outfield.


Hopewell – After pitching its way to a WPIAL championship and all the way to the PIAA Quarterfinals, the formula for another successful campaign might be different for the Vikings this season.  Outfielder and Pitt recruit Matt Rubino will once again be the focal point of Hopewell’s order after finishing second in District 7 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI.  Section 3 should once again be very top-heavy, but if they bring their lumber on a day-to-day basis, another good playoff run is possible.

Moon – You’d better believe the Tigers, who shared the Section 3 crown with Hopewell, will be hungry for revenge after falling just short against the Vikings in the Class AAA title game.  The play of shortstop Brett Hoffman, who put up a .385 batting average, led Moon with a .683 slugging percentage, scored and drove in 19 runs, and made only two errors, will be crucial to how far their quest takes them.  Like Hopewell, if Moon can overcome the losses to its pitching staff, don’t be surprised to see them back at Consol Energy Park.

Central Valley – Obviously the pantry is still not bare when it comes to baseball talent in Beaver County, and this includes the new program.  Johnny Rossi struck out 57 last year.  Logan Urtz belted five home runs.  J.R. DeWeese finished tenth in the WPIAL with a .566 average, third with eight homers, and seventh with 28 RBI.  Monaca reached the quarterfinals, while Center, in its last year of existence, was a WPIAL Semifinalist.  The Warriors have already made a name for themselves with a stunning run to the WPIAL Class AAA football championship, and by making the playoffs in their first year as a unified boys’ basketball program, so can they go deep on the diamond in more ways than one?

Chartiers Valley – Their 2010 campaign was nothing to write home about, but the potential exists for the Colts, who did not reach the WPIAL Playoffs, to be one of the most improved programs in Class AAA.  Bryan Leipold had a great summer hitting the cover off the ball for Chartiers Valley’s Colt League team, while catcher and all-section honoree John O’Neill is another one who has provided leadership through the team’s growing pains.  Whether they can successfully hold their own against Section 3 front-runners Hopewell, Moon, and Montour is the big question mark.


Burrell – Pitt recruit Dave Yakopec will anchor the pitching staff.  Last season, he ended 6-2 with 76 strikeouts, and typically, when he is at the top of his game, this team is almost impossible to beat, particularly in section play.  For the Buccaneers, Section 3 appears to be theirs for the taking, and the fact that defending WPIAL champion Beaver Falls was hit so hard by graduation makes them even more of a threat.  The Tigers ousted Burrell for the Class AA title last spring.

Ford City – After missing out on postseason play in 2010, the Sabers have the feel of a potentially strong under-the-radar challenger.  Shortstop and Pitt recruit Dylan Wolsonovich will stabilize the infield after tying for sixth in Class AA with 26 runs scored.  Danny Russo finished sixth in Class AA with 61 strikeouts.  The first step for Ford City will be finishing strong in Section 3, which won’t be easy with Freeport looking decent again, but graduation turnover elsewhere could move this team up the ladder.

Shady Side Academy – Last year the Indians held off Greensburg Central Catholic for the Section 4 crown, their second in a row, and reached the WPIAL Quarterfinals, where an upset took place at the hands of Bishop Canevin.  With Class AA being a little more wide open this season, the potential exists for Shady Side to make a longer run.  Team leader Ben Hartz is one of the more complete players in the classification.  He hit .500 (25 hits) with 27 RBI as an outfielder, and also went 5-1 as a pitcher with 50 K’s.

Laurel – The Spartans were a team that got people’s hearts going in the postseason, and judging by some of the talent they’ve lost, they may not lose that identity of a team with a flair for the dramatic.  Look for Laurel to try and manufacture runs this year, and to lean on the bat of Rick Jones, a great shortstop who earned all-section honors in 2010.  With Beaver Falls likely less of a factor this year, the Section 5 title may come down to Laurel–which bowed to BF in a dramatic quarterfinal contest–and an improved Mohawk squad.  The Spartans have team chemistry, and they are well coached, so never count them out.


Serra Catholic – Few have personified dominance in this sport, especially in this classification quite like the Eagles, who are poised to make a run at an unprecedented third straight WPIAL Class A championship.  One of the most consistent hitters around, all-PIAA honoree and Akron recruit Chris Miller finished third in the district with a .610 batting average, fourth in Class A with five home runs, and led the team with 31 RBI, staggering .944 slugging percentage.  Alain Girman finished in the WPIAL’s top ten with 25 RBI and 29 runs scored, and his 8-0 record on the hill, not to mention his 0.95 ERA, included a no-hitter in the Class A title game.

Neshannock – One win (and, yes, a hit here and there) was all that separated the Lancers from district gold in 2011, but the good news is they still apparently have the horses to make another run at the title.  Shortstop John Sansone, a very well-rounded hitter, blasted four home runs last year.  Chris Tsangaris was second on the team with a .451 batting average playing out of the outfield, putting him among the Class A leaders.  Monaca challenged this team for the Section 3 crown in 2010, so with the merger, the Lancers have a clearer path to the postseason.

Beth-Center – Austin Smith is back at shortstop after tying for seventh in the WPIAL with 27 runs scored and leading the team with a .460 batting average.  Mike Bodnar went 4-2 on the hill with 50 K’s while batting .373 and finishing among the WPIAL’s top ten with 25 runs driven in.  There is still a lot of pop and a lot of motivation in that dugout after what happened last spring, so expect the Bulldogs, who are coming off a Section 1 title, to resemble a very hungry bunch after a disappointingly early playoff exit.

California – For last year’s third-place finisher, it’s going to be all about trying to turn the bronze medals into gold ones, and for the Trojans to do so, it’ll have to be all about the Conway brothers.  T.D. Conway led all WPIAL Class A pitchers with a 7-0 regular season record, and finished second in the classification with 63 strikeouts.  Dakota Conway will provide a solid bat, among other things, at shortstop, and like T.D., he made the all-section team.  Winning Section 2 won’t be much easier than it was last year, but if the pitchers handle their business, California will contend.

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