2024 WPIAL Class 3A baseball preseason breakdown

Wednesday, March 13, 2024 | 11:01 AM

It is easy to run out of superlatives to describe the 2023 Riverside baseball season.

The Panthers not only went 25-0, they dominated the competition on their way to a Section 1 title, a WPIAL championship and a PIAA crown.

In their 25 wins, they registered eight shutouts, including, fittingly, the PIAA 3A state title game victory over Camp Hill, 4-0.

Riverside scored double-digit runs 11 times and won by seven or more runs in a game 15 times.

The WPIAL championship win over Neshannock was close … until it wasn’t. The Panthers prevailed, 8-1.

Will anybody flirt with perfection in Class 3A this spring?

Here is a rundown of the 2024 preseason top 5 teams, some of the players to watch and other diamond notes in WPIAL Class 3A baseball.

Preseason Top 5

1. Riverside (25-0 last season)

How do you follow up a perfect season? With most of his players back from last season, ageless Riverside coach Dan Oliastro is hoping for a repeat performance. The Panthers made history last spring, becoming the first team to win a WPIAL and PIAA baseball championship with an undefeated record. The green machine is now ready for more success in 2024 with the return of standout players such as junior pitcher Christian Lucarelli (Duke), senior outfielder Bo Fornataro and junior outfielder Hunter Garvin, among many others who played a big part in the Panthers double-gold.

2. Avonworth (18-7)

Avonworth edged out rival South Park in the chase of the Section 2-3A title by one game; however, the semifinal hurdle was the Antelopes’ downfall in the district playoffs. For the third year in a row, the Antelopes lost in the WPIAL final four, this time falling to Neshannock, 2-1. Avonworth returns eight starters from last year’s team that finished 18-7 overall. Senior pitcher and Ithaca commit Luke Zelinko along with seniors Brandon Sapolsky and Aiden Tinker will lead the ‘Lopes pitching staff. Their battery mate is a good one in junior catcher Mason Metz.

3. Mohawk (13-8)

Life in Section 1-3A is no fun going up against the likes of defending champion Riverside, district runner-up Neshannock, 2021 2A champion Shenango as well as Ellwood City and Quaker Valley. Mohawk found out a year ago when it won 13 games and still finished in fourth place. The Warriors return all nine starters back this season from a team that lost by one run to East Allegheny in the district quarterfinals. Senior infielder Jay Wrona is one of the top players in the district as he is headed to Youngstown State next year. Senior catcher A.J. Verdi is a Cal (Pa.) commit, and sophomore pitcher Vinny Pezzulo is coming off a strong freshman season.

4. East Allegheny (14-8)

Three years ago, East Allegheny finished the 2021 season with five wins. Last year, the turnaround of the program that started in 2022 continued as the Wildcats won the Section 3-3A title and reached the WPIAL semifinals, where they lost to eventual champion Riverside and earned a berth in the PIAA playoffs while finishing 14-8. High hopes continue with the return of eight starters for EA. Senior pitcher and Slippry Rock commit Michael Cahill joins seniors Joe Connors and Chance Odoski to round out a strong pitching staff. Their battery mate is senior Traynor Janosko, an all-section catcher a year ago. Senior Ryan Rupert was an all-section center fielder in 2023.

5. Valley (11-11)

Valley won six games and finished in last place in its section two years ago. Last year, the Vikings were 5-10 and on the outside looking in to the playoff chase in Section 3-3A heading into May. But Valley swept section series from Derry and Deer Lakes and won its final five games to qualify for the postseason. After beating Burrell in the preliminary round, the Vikings lost to eventual champion Riverside. This year, eight starters are back for Valley, including senior pitcher and outfielder and Pitt-Johnstown commit Tyler Danko. Also back on the mound and elsewhere on the diamond are seniors Jacob Staraniec and Wesley Schrock and sophomores Niko Heakins and Dante Taliani.

Players to watch

Joe Roth, Sr., INF, Ellwood City

Will Nardone, Jr., P, Ellwood City

Jay Wrona, Sr., INF, Mohawk

A.J. Verdi, Sr., C, Mohawk

Vinny Pezzuolo, Soph., P/INF, Mohawk

Dom Cubellis, Jr., OF, Neshannock

Jacob Rynd, Jr., INF, Neshannock

Gavin Fallgren, Sr., C/INF, Quaker Valley

Darren McDade, Sr., C, Riverside

Bo Fornataro, Sr., OF, Riverside

Hunter Garvin, Jr., OF, Riverside

Christian Lucarelli, Jr., P, Riverside

Grayson Hooks, Sr., OF, Shenango

Mason Metz, Jr., C, Avonworth

Luke Zelinko, Sr., P, Avonworth

Brandon Sapolsky, Sr., P/INF, Avonworth

Ben Barnes, Sr., OF, Avonworth

Hunter Blackson, Sr., OF, Avonworth

Jake LaPorte, Sr., P, Keystone Oaks

Roman Keaney, Jr., C, Keystone Oaks

Nate Rohe, Soph., P/INF, Keystone Oaks

Dillon Pomaki, Soph., INF, South Allegheny

Josh Jackowski, Jr., OF, South Allegheny

Adam Jackowski, Soph., P, South Allegheny

Jaxson Champ, Sr., C/INF, South Allegheny

Daniel Pepke, Sr., P/INF, South Park

Nelson Horvwalt, Sr., INF/OF, Steel Valley

Chase Burks, Jr., P/C/INF, Sto-Rox

Austen McLafferty, Sr., P/OF, Burrell

Ryan Cochran, Sr., OF, Deer Lakes

Roman Fridley, Sr., OF, Derry

Brady Angus, Sr., INF, Derry

Michael Cahill, Sr., P, East Allegheny

Traynor Janosko, Sr., C/INF, East Allegheny

Ryan Rupert, Sr., OF, East Allegheny

Joe Connors, Sr., P/INF, East Allegheny

Chance Odoski, Sr., P/INF, East Allegheny

Michael Hanz, Jr., P, Freeport

Mathew Corfield, Sr., P/INF, Freeport

Matt Long, Sr., C, Shady Side Academy

Brady Trischler, Jr., INF, Shady Side Academy

Tyler Danko, Sr., OF, Valley

Wesley Schrock, Sr., P/INF/OF, Valley

Jacob Staraniec, Sr., P/INF/OF, Valley

Nikolas Heakins, Soph., P.INF/OF, Valley

Dante Taliani, Soph., P/C/INF, Valley

Rylan Johnson, Sr., INF, Brownsville

Braedon Leatherman, Jr., P, Greensburg Salem

Ryan Keith, Sr., P/OF, McGuffey

Logan Carlisle, Jr., OF, McGuffey

Connor Drzal, Jr., P/INF, Mt. Pleasant

Ty Keffer, Sr., P/INF, Southmoreland

Kadin Keefer, Sr., P/INF, Southmoreland

Alex VanSickle, Jr., INF, Waynesburg Central

Zander Aird, Sr., P/OF, Yough

Diamond notes

• Twenty years ago, repeating as WPIAL champions in Class 3A was the thing to do. Not anymore. However, Riverside will be favored to win back-to-back 3A crowns for the first time since West Allegheny in 2007-2008. Before that repeat performance, Pine-Richland won three straight WPIAL crowns from 2004-2006.

• The defending district and state champion is a favorite to repeat, but it won’t be easy thanks to a brutal Section 1. There are the Panthers, a trio of Lawrence County powers in Mohawk, Neshannock and Shenango, plus Quaker Valley, Ellwood City and Beaver Falls all trying to make some noise in 2024. While Riverside comfortably won the section by four games a year ago, the next three playoff teams (Neshannock, Shenango and Mohawk) were only separated by one game. The difference between fifth and sixth place was also only one game.

• Even though Riverside won 17 games in 2022, its jump to 25 games last season was the second biggest improvement among Class 3A teams from 2022 to 2023. As impressive as the Panthers were, the best turnaround season was enjoyed by Freeport. The Yellowjackets won only five games as a 4A school in 2022, but finished in second place in Section 3-3A and had 15 wins for a 10-game improvement. Other 3A teams that took a big step last season: Greensburg Salem (plus-7 wins), Yough (plus-6), Valley (plus-5), South Park, South Allegheny and Waynesburg Central (plus-4) and Avonworth (plus-3).

Sto-Rox entered the 2023 season having not won a varsity baseball game since the 2017 season, losing 44 games in a row. That losing streak ended in the first game of the season when the Vikings defeated Springdale, 4-3. Unfortunately, Sto-Rox lost its final nine games of the season and was outscored, 144-3. On the flip side, Riverside has the longest winning streak heading into 2024 having gone a perfect 25-0 last season.

• Some WPIAL Class 3A championship anniversaries being celebrated this season: Steel Valley won the WPIAL title five years ago in 2019, West Allegheny was the 3A champion 10 years ago in 2014, Pine-Richland and some kid named Neil Walker won the 3A title 20 years ago in 2004, Shaler won it all in 3A 25 years ago in 1999, and Burrell captured 3A gold 50 years ago in 1974.

2024 alignment

Section 1: Beaver Falls, Ellwood City, Mohawk, Neshannock, Quaker Valley, Riverside, Shenango

Section 2: Avonworth, Keystone Oaks, South Allegheny, South Park,, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox

Section 3: Burrell, Deer Lakes, Derry, East Allegheny, Freeport, Shady Side Academy, Valley

Section 4: Brownsville, Greensburg Salem, McGuffey, Mt. Pleasant, Southmoreland, Waynesburg Central, Yough

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