A-K Valley baseball preview: Neighbors ready to rekindle section rivalries
Wednesday, March 15, 2023 | 5:08 PM
Burrell, Deer Lakes, Freeport and Valley will try to rekindle some old rivalries in a new baseball section this spring.
After two years in Class 4A, Burrell and Freeport return to Class 3A for the 2023 season. They will compete in Section 3 with fellow A-K Valley schools Deer Lakes and Valley, along with Derry, East Allegheny and Shady Side Academy.
“That’s where we should be,” Burrell coach Mark Spohn said. “I really do think it’s going to be a competitive section. All of the teams should be pretty good.”
Deer Lakes coach Josh Tysk agreed.
“It looks like our section will be pretty tough,” Tysk said. “We’ve always battled Freeport, the same with Burrell. Both of those teams are well coached and good programs. Valley should have some really good pitching too.”
While the local schools have scheduled exhibition matchups in recent years, Valley coach Jim Basilone said there’s nothing like facing a heated rival in section play. That’s especially true for Valley and Burrell, which sit just a few miles down Route 56 from each other.
“I’m sure if you talk to any coach at either Valley or Burrell, they’ll say you don’t have to pump the kids up for that one,” Basilone said. “You walk into the locker room and it’s silent, and then they come out ready to beat the other team. … It’s fun to watch.”
Freeport coach Ed Carr said he also welcomes the move to a section featuring “your natural rivals.”
“It’s great to be back with Valley, Deer Lakes and Burrell,” he said. “They’re really well coached and the kids have played against each other for years.”
Making the Freeport-Deer Lakes section matchups more interesting is the fact that Yellowjacket pitcher Dustin Rape transferred from Deer Lakes to Freeport over the summer. With a fastball clocked at 90 mph, the sophomore lefthander committed to Division I Penn State in February.
“He was our No. 3 guy on the mound as a freshman,” Tysk said. “There are circumstances in life that are bigger than high school baseball and his family had to move, and we wish him the best of luck. … He’s definitely going to be missed, but we’ve moved forward and they’ve moved forward. Hopefully things go well for both of us.”
Apollo-Ridge has a new head coach, but he’s a familiar face to the Viking players.
“They all know me. We have a pretty good relationship,” said Matt Gourley, who’s also a varsity assistant coach in football and basketball at the school.
Gourley takes over a team that finished tied for second in Section 3-2A in 2022 with a 7-3 record (9-8 overall). The Vikings lost to Carmichaels in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
Apollo-Ridge’s Brandon Butler and Karter Schrock earned all-section honors last season. Unfortunately, Schrock suffered an ACL injury playing football this fall and will miss his junior baseball season.
“He’s the most versatile athlete in the whole school. He’ll be missed,” Gourley said.
However, Butler will be back as the No. 1 pitcher and shortstop. A senior, Butler has committed to play baseball at Slippery Rock.
“He does it all,” Gourley said. “He really puts the work in.”
Other top seniors will be Colin Saxion (utility/pitcher) and catcher David Bankosh.
Apollo-Ridge will battle Riverview, Brentwood, Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette, Ligonier Valley and Serra Catholic in a revamped Section 3.
The Bucs will be looking to return to the Class 3A playoffs after posting a 3-7 mark (5-9 overall) in Class 4A last season.
“We have a pretty good group of athletes,” said coach Mark Spohn. “We should be pretty balanced with some good pitching.”
Top returnees are senior Ryan Scheftic, junior A.J. McClafferty and sophomore Dylan McKallip.
“Scheftic pitched a lot in relief for us last year, and should move into the starting rotation,” Spohn said. “McClafferty will pitch and play center field and McKallip will play middle infield.”
It’s been tough for Lancers coach Josh Tysk to evaluate his team for a couple of reasons this preseason: the soggy and sometimes snowy weather and the Deer Lakes boys basketball team’s historic run through the WPIAL and state playoffs.
Four Deer Lakes basketball players will join the baseball squad at the conclusion of the hoops season: seniors Bryce Robson and Michael Butler, junior Wayne Love and sophomore J.T. McCue.
“They are four guys who are going to have an impact on our season in some capacity, either on the mound or in a fielding position,” Tysk said.
Last season, Robson started in center field and batted leadoff when the Lancers tied for second in Section 3 and advanced to the second round of the WPIAL playoffs. Tysk said Butler and McCue play middle infield and Love will be a utility player.
Another key returnee is junior Ryan Cochran. A starter since his freshman year, Cochran was an all-section selection in the outfield last season.
“He’s a significant part of the team and we’re going to count on his experience,” Tysk said. “We’re a little younger at some key positions. … They might not have played varsity, but they’ve played baseball from an early age. We just need to get them accustomed to the speed of the game.”
The Foxes will bank on a deeper pitching staff to replace the graduation loss of ace lefthander Jake Patterson.
“We have six or seven pitchers who can come in and help us win games. We just have more depth on the mound,” said coach Jim Hastings.
At the top of the Fox Chapel rotation will be senior Dom Cassol, juniors Ryan Inglis and Christian Wilkinson and sophomore Jeremy Haigh. The defense should be solid up the middle behind senior catcher Jack Resek, senior shortstop Zach Johnston and junior second baseman Benny DeMotte. Resek and Johnston will be starting for the third year in a row.
The Foxes will compete in Section 1-5A with Plum, Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Gateway, Penn Hills and Penn-Trafford. They qualified for the 5A playoffs with a 7-5 section record (10-10 overall) in 2022.
The Yellowjackets appear ready to reap the benefits of playing a lot of young players in recent seasons.
“Honestly, we’re expecting to be pretty good,” coach Ed Carr said. “We’ve been reloading for a couple of years … playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores and taking our lumps. Now, we have a host of three-year starters who have gotten a ton of varsity at-bats.”
Freeport’s strong senior contingent includes first/third baseman Jack Smetak, outfielder Brady Stivenson, middle infielders Zach Clark and Jonathan Hotalski, pitchers/outfielders Dylan Stonebraker and A.J. Demharter, first baseman Eli Abbott and catchers Tyler Asti and Matt Parsi. Junor outfielder Ryan Claypool and sophomore infielder/outfielder C.J. Walker also are expected to play significant roles. Smetak has committed to play baseball at Division II Notre Dame College near Cleveland.
The pitching rotation will feature sophomores Dustin Rape and Michael Hanz, along with Clark, Stonebraker and Demharter. While Rape is known for his 90-mph fastball, Carr said the Penn State commit is more than a flamethrower.
“The thing that stands out to me is his competitiveness,” Carr said. “He’s a bulldog. He’s going to give you everything he has.”
The Golden Rams’ prospects for returning to the Class 4A playoffs will rely heavily on the play of senior Jimmy Kunst. An all-section honoree last season, Kunst has committed to play baseball at Eastern Michigan.
“Jimmy is our top player, no doubt,” said Highlands coach Jeff Campbell. “He’s a Division I recruit. He’ll be our No. 1 pitcher and shortstop. As far as batting, he could be anywhere from leadoff to No. 3 or 4, depending on how the other players develop.”
Joining Kunst as the other returning starter will be junior outfielder/pitcher Luke Bombalski. Senior Harrison Trischler is in line to take over the catcher’s role. Junior Carson Goldberg and sophomore Kristian Kocoon will play infield and pitch.
After finishing tied for second last season, the Golden Rams are back in Section 4-4A with Knoch, North Catholic and Indiana. Hampton and Kiski Area are newcomers to the section.
“Our section will be tough, like it was last year,” Campbell said. “Hampton went undefeated for a good part of last season. Kiski is a bigger school that we know from summer ball.”
The Cavaliers are counting on speed and pitching to keep them in playoff contention in Section 4-4A.
“I really think pitching is going to be a strong point for us,” said first-year coach Michael Manning, who most recently was an assistant at Avonworth. “We’ve also been working on gaining bases when we can. We’d like to take the extra base and put pressure on the defense.”
Juniors Jacob Smith and Carter Leviski and seniors Josh Ardellitz and LeBryn Smith should make up a deep pitching staff. Senior Dom DiNinno and junior Nathan Witt will anchor the infield.
Smith and DiNinno earned all-section honors last season.
After competing in 5A last year, the Cavaliers will square off against Highlands, Knoch, Hampton, Indiana and North Catholic in Section 4-4A. However, Manning isn’t using the drop in class to motivate his squad.
“Whatever (the WPIAL) gives us, we’ll do the best we can,” he said.
The Knights lost eight seniors, including four starters, from last season’s WPIAL Class 4A semifinalist.
Top returnees will be junior Brady Wozniak, who will move from third base to shortstop, and outfielder Jacob Stallsmith.
“Brady is a two-year letterman. With the seniors gone, we’re looking for him to step up this season,” said Knoch coach Bill Stoops. “We’re looking for Jacob to be our leadoff hitter, setting the table for the rest of the guys.”
Stallsmith also will move into the starting rotation after serving as closer last season. Taking his place out of the bullpen will be an intriguing prospect in 6-foot-11 freshman Zane Pacek.
With a veteran roster, coach Heath Shimer expects the Blue Devils to “make noise in (Class) A baseball.”
Leading Leechburg will be the senior quartet of Owen McDermott (pitcher/shortstop), Logan Kline (pitcher/outfielder), Tyler Burke (catcher/outfielder) and Matt Curfman (catcher/pitcher/outfielder). McDermott received all-section honors as both a pitcher and infielder last season.
Last year, The Blue Devils finished third in Section 3 and dropped a 9-4 decision to Greensburg Central Catholic in the first round of the playoffs. They moved to Section 2 this season, where they’ll battle Springdale, St. Joseph, Rochester, Summit Academy, Union and Western Beaver. Union is the defending WPIAL Class A champion.
“Our goal is to win the section,” Shimer said. “I know Union won (the WPIAL) last year, but if we don’t aspire to be the top, it would be a disservice to our squad.”
Seniors Brady Dojonovic and Caden Norcutt are back to lead the Mustangs on the mound and at the plate.
A first-team all-section pick, Dojonovic paced Plum in batting with a .343 average last season. Norcutt and junior Colin Watson are the top returning pitchers. Nick Lamia, Carson Svidron and Logan Kemmerer are among the senior class hoping to break through in the postseason.
“Most of us have played together since we were 8 and 9 years old, and we definitely have that chemistry built up,” Dojonovic said. “We’ve added a couple of underclassmen to the mix, and they mix well. We’re pushing forward every day and having fun.”
Last season, Plum placed third in Section 2-5A and lost to Shaler in a WPIAL first-round game. The Mustangs moved over to Section 1-5A, where they’ll play Armstrong, Fox Chapel, Gateway, Franklin Regional, Penn Hills and Penn-Trafford.
“It’s going to be a difficult section. There are teams in there from very good programs. It’s going to be a battle for sure,” said Mustangs coach Carl Vollmer.
The Raiders will move up to Class 2A, where they’ll compete against Apollo-Ridge, Brentwood, Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette, Ligonier Valley and Serra Catholic in Section 3.
“It’s going to be a challenge in 2A,” said coach Bill Gras.
Riverview does have most of its starters back from last season’s WPIAL Class A qualifier. The Raiders defeated Bishop Canevin, 13-8, before falling to eventual WPIAL champion Union.
Seniors Enzo Lio, Ben Hower and John Patsey will return to lead the pitching rotation. When he’s not on the mound, Lio is expected to play first base. Junior Adam Draxinger will do the catching. Among those filling out the rest of the defensive lineup will be Hower, Patsey, junior Jack Loughran, sophomores Tyler Aftanas and Johnny Bertucci and seniors Luke Migely, Cam Shane and Daniel Roupas.
Loughren has recovered from a broken leg suffered early in the football season. He led the Raiders in batting (.308 average), hits (16), RBIs (10) and runs scored (13) last season.
“The guys came in with a business-like attitude,” Gras said. “They want to go to work.”
The Spartans will be looking to bounce back from a winless season (0-13) with a new head coach.
“We have a very young group, but they are eager, coachable kids,” said Chuck Vocke, who took over at St. Joseph after coaching at the varsity, junior varsity and middle school levels at Kiski Area.
Junior Charlie Ross and sophomore Owen Swanson will serve as team captains.
“Owen will be our No. 1 pitcher and Charlie will play center field,” Vocke said.
Other top sophomores are catcher Noah Cooper, first baseman/pitcher Elliott Szalla and pitcher/shortstop Gabe Maltese.
Vocke expects the Spartans to be tested early in nonsection games against Eden Christian and Riverview, before moving into Section 2-A play against Leechburg, Springdale, Union, Rochester, Summit Academy and Western Beaver.
“We want to bring back a winning baseball culture to the school,” he said. “We expect to get off to a rough start, especially with the limited field time, but be playing good baseball by the end of the season.”
Freshmen comprise more than half of the Dynamos’ 16-player roster.
“We definitely have a young team,” said coach Dante Mahlmeister. “I think the key will be for the few guys we have returning to set a good example. They know what we expect, how to go about it the right way.”
Top returnees are senior catcher Joe Wylly and juniors Tom Hughes (pitcher/infielder) and Owen Scheuring (infielder). Last season, Hughes batted .535 with 10 extra base hits and 13 RBI, Mahlmeister said.
After finishing 2-8 (4-10 overall) in Section 3-A last season, the Dynamos will battle Leechburg, St. Joseph, Rochester, Summit Academy, Union and Beaver for section playoff spots.
“I truly don’t see any reason why we can’t compete for a playoff spot with the guys we have,” Mahlmeister said.
A talented trio of juniors — Tyler Danko, Jacob Staraniec and Wesley Shrock — will lead the Vikings this spring.
Danko earned all-section honors in the outfield last season. He’s also scheduled to take the pitching mound. Shrock will pitch and play first base, while Vikings coach Jim Basilone described Staraniec as a player “you can put anywhere.”
“He’ll pitch, play short and some outfield,” said Basilone of Staraniec.
Last season, Valley finished 6-12 overall and 1-9 in section play.
“We’re looking to hold our own on the mound, make the routine plays and get the hits in the right situations to score runs,” Basilone said. “We’re not going to be an overpowering team, but if we can hit with runners on we’ll be better than last year.”
Players to watch
Brandon Butler, sr., P-SS, Apollo-Ridge
Ryan Cochran, jr., OF, Deer Lakes
Dustin Rape, soph., P, Freeport
Jack Smetak, sr., 1B-3B, Freeport
Jimmy Kunst, sr., P-SS, Highlands
Dom DiNinno, jr., INF, Kiski Area
Jacob Smith, jr., P, Kiski Area
Owen McDermott, sr., P-INF, Leechburg
Brady Dojonovic, sr., OF, Plum
Tom Hughes, jr., P-INF, Springdale
Tyler Danko, jr., OF, Valley
Tags: Apollo-Ridge, Burrell, Deer Lakes, Fox Chapel, Freeport, Highlands, Kiski Area, Knoch, Leechburg, Plum, Riverview, Springdale, St. Joseph, Valley
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