A-K Valley teams snap long playoff droughts, but will inexperience matter?

Saturday, May 11, 2019 | 7:06 PM

Kurt Krebs asked his St. Joseph baseball players for a show of hands recently, seeking those who were alive in 2001, and got a positve response from three.

The Spartans baseball coach was attempting to illustrate the length of the school’s WPIAL playoff drought, but he actually was off by a year. Before this spring, the last time St. Joseph qualified for the postseason was 2000.

“It’s been a while either way,” said Krebs, whose team finished fourth in Section 3-A, finally earning its long-awaited playoff berth. “It’s exciting. … (The upperclassmen) endured a lot, and I think it really means a lot for them to have tangible proof of the progress they’ve all made together.”

The Alle-Kiski Valley’s three longest postseason droughts came to an end this spring, as St. Joseph baseball, Springdale softball (‘00) and Highlands baseball (’03) made it to the oasis for the first time in more than a decade.

“These girls are excited to be the ones to bring Springdale back to the playoffs,” Springdale coach Anthony Pototo said. “We want to be a team that no one wants to play.”

Now the Dynamos, who finished second behind Leechburg in Section 3-A and received the No. 6 seed in the Class A bracket, will see if they can.

The WPIAL playoffs will present a new challenge for Springdale, just as it will for Highlands and St. Joseph. None of their players will have played in the postseason before. And, to Krebs’ point, many of them weren’t even alive to do so.

Will it matter? Will their lack of experience cost them at some point?

“It can work both ways for you,” Deer Lakes softball coach Craig Taliani said. “Having that playoff experience, you know that you play it all the way through to the end. You’ve got to play all seven innings, and you have to stay focused through the adversity and you have to expect you’re going to run into some teams that are also good, and they’re going to put pressure on you and you have to be able to respond.

“The other side is, sometimes ignorance is bliss, and you don’t really realize things that you don’t need to worry about. You just go play your game and do everything you’ve worked on and prepared for. The outside stuff really isn’t a distraction.”

Taliani, who led experienced and inexperienced Deer Lakes teams to deep playoff runs — winning two WPIAL titles and reaching the championship game three other times since 2012 — has his youngest group yet. But the Lancers still feature a few players who were part of a run to the WPIAL championship game and PIAA quarterfinals two years ago.

Several other Alle-Kiski Valley softball teams are chock-full of postseason experience. Leechburg, which is making its record 33rd consecutive WPIAL playoff appearance, reached the Class A semifinal round each of the last two seasons. Burrell (14 straight postseasons) features a senior-laden group that advanced to the Class 3A quarterfinals last season. Freeport (10 straight) made it to the Class 3A semifinals a year ago.

Among the A-K Valley’s softball postseason qualifiers, only Springdale and Plum missed out last last season. But Plum made it every season from 2009-17.

“Especially this group of seniors, they know what it takes to win,” Burrell coach Brian Eshbaugh said. “It takes hard work, dedication and giving 110 percent all the time. They know you get one chance, and if you screw that one chance up, you’re not going to have it tomorrow.”

The postseason experience runs a bit lighter on the baseball side, where Highlands, Kiski Area and St. Joseph qualified after missing out in previous springs. But then there’s Burrell, which made it for the 20th time in 21 seasons under coach Mark Spohn; Knoch, which is back for an eighth straight year; and Deer Lakes, two years removed from a deep WPIAL run.

Spohn said experience can manifest itself in various ways during the postseason, but it comes down to simple execution.

“You’re going to match up against good teams, so you’ve got to limit your strikeouts. You’ve got to limit the amount of times you walk the other team,” he said. “I always tell our team if we don’t strike out, don’t walk people and we don’t make errors, we’re going to win.”

That’s the scenario most teams try to follow in any game, regular season or playoffs. And experienced or not, they hope they can play well enough to win when it matters.

The Alle-Kiski Valley crowned WPIAL champions in baseball (Knoch) and softball (Deer Lakes) in 2015, and the ‘19 playoff qualifiers stand four wins or fewer from making that a reality again.

“When I came in last year, there was some optimism, but it was guarded optimism,” Krebs said. “This year, when they came in, they (said), ‘We’re going to the playoffs this year. This is our year to get there.’ And they put in the time. They put in the work, and they earned that spot.”

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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