After winning section title a year ago, Franklin Regional baseball has bigger goals

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Saturday, March 7, 2020 | 4:42 PM


The Franklin Regional baseball team sailed into uncharted waters in 2019.

After a run of four consecutive second-place section finishes, the Panthers made the jump to the top spot.

FR captured the Section 1-5A championship with a 12-0 record, leapfrogging Gateway (9-3), Fox Chapel (7-5) and Kiski Area (6-6). Not only did the Panthers land their first section title in 13 seasons, they earned a No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the WPIAL playoffs.

The Panthers are looking to defend that title behind a host of returning players.

“Last year’s team was very special and not just from a talent perspective,” coach Bobby Saddler said. “The players weren’t just close on the field, but they were tight off the field as well. If there is one thing I hope the underclassmen learned from last year, it is the importance of a team that is a close-knit group.”

Saddler said last year’s squad, statistically, is the best hitting team he had coached during his nine seasons. FR hit .344 last season, and five players hit at least .333.

FR opened last season — the Panthers termed it the “Year of the Frog”— with three wins in Vero Beach, Fla., lost a one-run decision at Plum, then reeled off 13 consecutive victories to take a 16-1 record in the playoffs.

The Panthers, 19-3 last season, advanced to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals — their first state playoff appearance in 18 years.

“Our expectations for this year are to compete for the section title and to make a run for a WPIAL championship,” Saddler said. “That being said, we will take things one day, one game at a time because the season is a marathon and not a sprint.”

Among the nine returning starters/lettermen from last year is a trio of seniors, juniors and sophomores.

Catcher Bryce Harper, outfielder Zach Seaman and infielder/pitcher Connor Helm are seniors. First baseman Tim Quinn, pitcher/shortstop Andrew Muraco and third baseman/shortstop Louie Kegerreis are juniors.

“Our expectations are to finish what we started last year, win the section again and go all the way to a WPIAL championship,” Harper said. “I want to finish my career with a WPIAL championship.”

Harper has a 3.7 GPA and participates in his school’s work release program, where he works as an apprentice car mechanic.

The top returning sophomores on this year’s club include Tom Nicely, a catcher/first baseman, outfielder Jordan Suvak and Caden Smith, an outfielder/infielder.

Kegerreis hit .430 with 22 RBIs and 15 runs . Harper hit .352 and drove in 16 runs. Nicely hit .300 with 15 RBIs and 12 runs.

On the mound, Muraco finished 7-1 with and 1.97 ERA, which included a no-hitter against Woodland Hills.

“Muraco has a variety of pitches that he feels confident in using in any situation,” Saddler said. “He gets ahead of hitters early in counts, which reduces the amount of pitches he throws and forces the hitters into pitcher’s counts.”

Helm also contributed on the mound, fanning 16 in 12 innings and picking up two saves.

“Both Muraco and Helm were very reliable down the stretch for us last year,” Saddler said, “which is why we were able to advance deep into the WPIAL playoffs and make the PIAA playoffs.”

Muraco, nicknamed “Rock,” committed to Coastal Carolina last summer. Seaman is a California (Pa.) recruit.

Other players competing for spots on this year’s pitching staff include Luke Trelor, Brian Pirone, Chris Pagano, Kyle Morgan and Ryan Dalcanton.

Jack Bridges, Tyler Graham, Daniel Luko and Dalcanton are vying for playing time in the field and at the plate.

Last year’s team members continuing their careers in college include P/OF Michael Klingensmith (Wooster), who was lauded as a WPIAL Player of the Year; OF Tommy Kegerreis (Westmoreland County Community College); and P/IF Jake Williams (Yale), after taking a “gap year” before enrolling.

Williams helped create the nonprofit business, mySportResume.com, an online athletic and academic portfolio for aspiring college student-athletes.

Also, Palmer Jackson, a top hurler for the Panthers a year ago, is a member of the men’s golf team at Notre Dame.

Jackson, named after the late Arnold Palmer, was selected as the 2018-19 Tribune-Review Westmoreland Boys Athlete of the Year.

FR will return to Dodgertown in Vero Beach later this month (March 19-24), then visit Mars on March 26 for a nonsection game.

The Panthers are on tap to play eight section games in April, at home against Fox Chapel, Laurel Highlands, Woodland Hills, Gateway and Kiski Area, and on the road versus Kiski Area, Penn Hills and Fox Chapel.

“We want to come back from Florida playing good baseball and continue to improve upon our play each game,” Saddler said. “If we are able to do that, I believe we will be in a good spot at the end of the regular season, as well as for the playoffs.”

The Panthers’ home opener is April 3 against Fox Chapel.

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