Aces on the hill: A-K Valley baseball teams lean on deep, experienced pitching staffs

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 | 1:26 PM

Kiski Area faced a five-run hole as the fourth inning of its nonsection baseball game against Plum began last week, but the Cavaliers didn’t worry. After all, they had their ace — or one of them, at least — in the hole.

Or, more accurately, on the hill.

Senior Nick Smith delivered in relief that game, tossing four shutout innings to help Kiski Area rally for a 6-5 victory. Maybe the result will go down as just another nonsection game, ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of the playoffs, but it meant more than that to the Cavaliers, who are looking to make the postseason for the first time since 2016.

“It’s a confidence thing for us,” said Smith, who also drove in the winning run with a fifth-inning sacrifice fly. “We were down 5-0 going to the fourth, but we never really looked at it like, ‘Oh, we’re done, we don’t have anything more to give.’

“When things don’t go our way, then we’re never done until the game’s over. It’s a seven-inning game for a reason, and we’re going to battle until we can’t battle anymore.”

Indeed, Kiski Area has plenty to give this season: especially on the mound, where first-year coach Aaron Albert estimates all but one of his regulars could get him outs if needed. The Cavaliers are one of several Alle-Kiski Valley teams who are banking on deep, experienced pitching staffs for their success this season.

“I think our confidence for all of us is a lot higher,” said Smith, one of the top four on Kiski Area’s staff, along with senior Ryne Wallace and juniors Billy Perroz and Ryan Rametta. “Our pitching coach has really preached not getting down on yourself when something doesn’t go your way. When we do give up a hit, he always says (to) get the next pitch, get a ground ball and we’ll get a double play. Or if you get a call that you think could have gone your way but didn’t, he always says to get the next pitch and focus on what you can control.”

Pitching plays a crucial role in virtually every level of baseball, but high school teams with an ace backed up by several other key arms can have an inherent advantage both during the regular season and playoffs.

In the regular season, postponements can cause a cramped end-of-season schedule that forces teams to play several important section games in a relatively short amount of time, thus making a deep pitching staff a necessity.

“It’ll save everyone’s arms having more pitchers and better pitchers,” Burrell senior Luke Virag said. “When we’re struggling and we need better pitching, they can come in and take our place.”

Burrell, which split the Section 1-3A championship last season and made it to the WPIAL quarterfinals, is relying on a strong pitching staff of its own, led by Virag, a three-year starter, and left-handers Tanner Spohn and Zach Miller.

But beyond that, the Class 3A No. 3 Bucs (2-0) have depth with the likes of Eli Ferres and Jack Henderson. Henderson did to Kiski Area last week what Kiski Area’s Smith did to Plum: He worked out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the bottom of the seventh inning to preserve a 4-2 Burrell win.

“I thought Jack earned the right, and it’d be a confidence builder just for him to be in that situation,” Burrell coach Mark Spohn said. “I left him out there, and he got the job done. I have five kids that are pretty competitive.”

Some of the A-K Valley’s top pitchers are showing what it takes to compete and lead their teams to wins.

Freeport ace Jarrett Heilman struck out 13 batters in a shutout win over Highlands. Noah Gillette, a Highlands senior and Pitt-Johnstown recruit, pitched five shutout innings and struck out six in a win over Belle Vernon, then earned another win in a relief appearance Monday against Apollo-Ridge. Deer Lakes’ Greg Geis struck out 10 batters in his season debut, a win over Curwensville in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Geis, a left-hander, is a three-year starter now stepping into the No. 1 role vacated by 2017 graduate Zach Lubick and 2018 graduate Jacob McCaskey, the past two Valley News Dispatch Players of the Year.

“I think it’s probably mainly that the expectation’s a lot higher being the undisclosed ace, more than being the 2 or the 3 expected to pitch every other day,” said Geis, a West Liberty recruit. “It’s kind of expected that I’m supposed to go one to two outings per week, and pretty much that’s the main (difference).

“I feel I’m definitely ready for that challenge of being an ace. It’s something I’ve wanted since I’ve had the fortune to just have a key role on a varsity rotation.”

But just as important as having an ace is the depth. When Geis struggled in a nonsection game last week against Knoch, freshman Justin Brannagan came in and pitched four innings of quality relief before suffering a walk-off loss. Knoch used four pitchers in that game itself, with Guy DeLeonardis getting the win.

Geis said while the current Deer Lakes pitching staff might not have the name recognition of previous seasons, the quality remains — and so does the confidence.

That’s the most coveted commodity for many pitching staffs.

“Even though we struggled those last two years, we gained valuable experience, and it’s helping us through the season,” Smith said. “We’re playing a lot smarter, and we have a lot more confidence than we’ve had the last two years.”

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

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