A-K Valley baseball teams enter home stretch on playoff bubble

Tuesday, April 30, 2019 | 6:26 PM

Aaron Albert used some recent indoor practice time to put Kiski Area’s baseball reality in writing.

The Cavaliers’ first-year coach grabbed a marker and jotted down the Section 1-5A standings on a whiteboard, showing his players in black (or color) and white what lay in front of them in the final two weeks of the regular season.

“I said, look, guys, we’re in uncharted territory here,” said Albert, whose Cavaliers (6-8, 3-5) trail Armstrong by a half-game for the fourth and final playoff spot in the section. “It’s right in front of them, they’re right in the thick of it and if we take care of the business we should, they have a chance to do something that no Kiski team has done in a while.”

Baseball games don’t have a clock, but baseball season does — and it’s ticking down on teams with postseason hopes. A quick glance at the WPIAL standings reveals the situation facing a handful of teams in contention.

For example: Plum (7-9, 3-4) entered Tuesday tied with Hempfield for fourth place in Section 2-6A; Kiski Area was battling with Armstrong (7-5, 3-4) in 1-5A; Knoch (10-4, 5-4) and Highlands (8-7, 4-4) held a slight edge over Mt. Pleasant for the final two slots in 1-4A; and St. Joseph (3-6, 1-4) was tied with Clairton (1-6, 1-4) in 3-A, just ahead of Springdale (2-9, 1-5) for the final spot.

And with many teams down to just a few section games, every contest is crucial.

“It’s like sudden death,” Highlands coach Jeff Campbell said. “One game at a time. We’ve got to go out and win the first, then we go get the second.”

That’s the mentality teams have to take this time of year, Knoch coach Sean O’Donnell said, because doing something differently can backfire.

For instance, O’Donnell said he created a pitching rotation last week that was opponent-dependent; the Knights lost to struggling Derry (4-7, 3-6) on a walk-off, only to see their game against section leader Yough get rained out later in the week.

“You’ve just got to win the next game,” O’Donnell said. “That’s kind of the mindset we have. If I’ve got to use all my pitchers on Monday, then we’ve got to figure something out for Tuesday. But it’s one of the situations where you can’t mess around anymore.”

O’Donnell does have the benefit of an experienced team, one that claimed section titles each of the last two years. Plum, meanwhile, is aiming for its 13th consecutive playoff appearance and reached at least the quarterfinals in the past five.

“I hope (the experience helps),” O’Donnell said. “I think every year is a new group of guys. Every year is different. But I think guys like (some of our key players) have pitched in big games and have been through it before, and they have the familiarity, which certainly helps when you have a bunch of guys who have been there. But it’s a different team, a different group, and the teams we’re playing are different teams and different groups.”

St. Joseph (2000) and Highlands (2005) are looking to end extended postseason droughts, while Kiski Area spent the last two seasons mired in last place. Springdale appeared in the playoffs in 2017, but most of those players are gone.

“We’re a young team with four seniors, so it’s tough to know what you’re going to get day to day,” Albert said. “I think our kids are focused against the teams we need to beat, against the teams we’re maybe not expected to beat. They seem to get up for games like that.”

Campbell said to relieve stress on his players, he’s attempting to keep them loose during practice. Highlands played an intrasquad game Monday, a rare day off from section play.

The schedule ramps up from here, though.

Plum plays key games against Penn-Trafford, Norwin and Connellsville, the first two this week. Kiski Area faces Gateway and Armstrong next week. Knoch has games against Mt. Pleasant, Greensburg Salem and Highlands remaining, while Highlands must play Derry, Yough, Indiana and Yough down the stretch. St. Joseph and Springdale play each other once more, and St. Joseph also has a pair of games against Clairton remaining.

“This group sees what’s on the horizon, and I think they have some faith and belief in themselves,” Campbell said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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