Trip to last season’s WPIAL baseball final motivates underdog Mt. Pleasant

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Monday, May 14, 2018 | 9:00 PM


With a record of 8-7, Mt. Pleasant sits just one game over .500 as it heads into the WPIAL Class 3A baseball playoffs. It is also one game up on … the school's fearsome softball team?

“We beat them in wiffle ball. It was like 10-4,” sophomore third baseman Joe Shrum said. “It was when we had one of those snowy days. Big win for us.”

Whether it's playing indoor teacher-pitch games against state-championship softball girls or for playoff wins against the WPIAL's best baseball teams, Mt. Pleasant embraces the underdog role.

The Vikings welcomed it last year when, even though they were section champions, they reached the WPIAL finals for the first time since 1989. They might have lost to Riverside, 7-1, but a half-dozen players who played at Wild Things Park returned with a new appreciation for the postseason.

No. 11 seed Mt. Pleasant faces No. 3 Burrell (9-3) at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Latrobe in the Class 3A first round.

“We don't have the firepower of last year's team,” Shrum said. “But we have a variety of guys who can do a lot of things. We have a lot of mature, young guys. Our seniors prepared us for this. Each opponent is just another team.”

Mt. Pleasant won its 22nd section title last year. It won a WPIAL title in 1970 and added other runner-up finishes in 1978 and '89.

Coach Chris Firmstone said the program is rooted in one fundamental element: togetherness.

“There is a big baseball tradition here,” Firmstone said. “A lot of what I wanted to do when I took over was to make it about team. … It's not about individualism. It's a we're-in-this-together attitude. They know we're not going to win every game, but they also know that nine out of 10 times, if everybody does their part, we're going to be OK.”

Mt. Pleasant played some small ball and relied on defense to stay in the Section 3 race, scraping together wins and hanging around in a lot of games. Eight games were decided by one or two runs. A six-game winning streak halfway down the schedule included a 5-4 win over first-place Brownsville, the No. 4 seed.

“We lost three good seniors and leaders,” Firmstone said. “But we have six people back that learned a lot from last year. We knew that would help us. It's a different group, but it's made up of the same goals.”

Playing in meaningful games last season paid dividends for the Vikings, who did not back down from a challenge.

“It (stinks) not winning (the title), but we were happy to experience making it that far,” senior left fielder Noah Lynch, who will play at Saint Vincent. “We see so much potential in our younger guys. I know I won't be here next year, but we want what's best for them. The program is going to be good for awhile.”

Both this year and last, Firmstone stressed to his players the contrast between regular-season and playoff games; the team concept never more magnified as he did so.

“The playoffs are totally different,” Firmstone said. “It's one-and-done. These guys understand that having been through it.”

And players thrived in their preparation on the underdog role, even on Monday when more rain forced them inside the gym and field house again.

“No one expected a lot from us last year,” Lynch said. “Nobody thought we could go far in our section or the playoffs. We explained that to the younger guys.

“We've had a lot of ups and downs. It's been a baseball roller coaster. We're a scrappy team. We're a unit and play as one. No heroes in this team.”

But there are heroes around the team, like late coach Charlie Kubasky and current cancer-stricken junior Dom Giallonardo.

Kubasky, a longtime youth baseball coach and former standout athlete at Mt. Pleasant, died of cancer last October at age 46. The baseball and softball teams wear the initials “CK” on the side of their hats in honor of him.

“They are an amazing family,” Shrum said. “His son, Nate, is a freshman on our team.”

“Everyone has a part of Charlie with us,” Firmstone said. “He was a big part of our program.”

Giallonardo, still on the varsity roster and a beaming against-the-odds example, is battling Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer. He played basketball last season, despite his ailment, and has been a daily inspiration to his teammates and classmates.

“I'd like to see him get on the field,” Lynch said. “He really makes you appreciate the blessings you have.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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