Alle-Kiski Valley baseball preview: Plum reloads for another run

Thursday, March 14, 2024 | 6:29 PM

It was another banner year in 2023 for the Plum baseball team.

The Mustangs used a walk-off win against Fox Chapel on the final day of the regular season to earn a split of the Section 1-5A title with Penn-Trafford and went on to make the WPIAL semifinals before falling to Shaler.

With some key returners and others primed to increase their roles, the plan is to make another run.

“Any time you make it to the WPIAL semifinals I think that qualifies as a good season,” veteran Plum coach Carl Vollmer said. “The idea is to go back and do it again. We’re going to do what we always do. We have a tough section, but we’re going to do everything we can to scratch and claw for wins. We have some experience and some youth that I think is ready to contribute.”

The Mustangs began their season with a trip to Florida on the opening weekend of the WPIAL season.

Ace pitcher Brady Dojonovic graduated, but the Mustangs return Erik Streussnig, who was another starter during the two-game section series. Colin Watson, who shined as a reliever to the tune of a 1.11 ERA, also returns. He likely will move into the rotation.

Daniel Macioce, Sean Franzi, Jack Anderson, Dom Beyer and Jake Domkowski bring experienced bats to the lineup.

Fox Chapel finished one spot behind Plum in section play. The Foxes return the majority of last season’s team, including top pitchers Jeremy Haigh and IUP recruit Christian Wilkinson.

Wilkinson will be a key cog in the lineup along with catcher Mitchell Epstein and infielder Troy Susnak.

“We have all our pitching back and six players in the lineup,” Fox Chapel coach Jim Hastings said. “The kids are excited, and I’m excited. We’re pretty deep and have a lot of options.”

Kiski Area made the playoffs after tying for third in Section 1-4A and have an experienced group of seniors, including team captain Nate Witt, Wyatt Krough, Jacob Smith, Blake Fritz, Brad Rupert, Carter Leviski and Jason Buscack.

“Overall, we have a lunch-bucket type of group here,” Cavaliers coach Michael Manning said. “No rah rah type wasted energy. They just show up, put the work in and go home. I’m grateful to be a part of it.”

Fellow Section 1-4A teams Knoch and Highlands will look to rebound after missing the playoffs last year.

Freeport finished second in Section 1-3A behind East Allegheny. The Yellowjackets will lean on an experienced pitching staff fronted by junior righty and West Virginia commit Michael Hanz. Fellow Division I commit Dustin Rape (Penn State) will miss the start of the season as he rehabs an injury.

Matt Corfield, Malik Febinger, Cameron Zigo and Dustin Kohan provide experienced pitching depth.

“We’re hoping good pitching and sound defense is our foundation while our young guys make the adjustment offensively,” Freeport coach Ed Carr said.

Valley won a play-in game against rival Burrell last year and returns its entire team. The Vikings also have a strong stable of arms in Tyler Danko, Niko Heakins, Jacob Staraniec and Wesley Schrock.

Longtime Burrell coach Mark Spohn retired, and his assistant Jay Miller took over. The Bucs return senior outfielder AJ McClafferty, a Saint Vincent recruit, as well as senior catcher Mike McKay.

“We’re finally starting to get a little older having double-digit upperclassmen for the first time since the covid year,” Miller said. “With that maturity, we’ll look to stay composed in those high-pressure situations we’ve experienced in the past.”

Deer Lakes had a rare season in which it missed the playoffs, but it returns standout senior outfielder Ryan Cochran.

Riverview had some key graduates from a team that advanced to the Class 2A quarterfinals, but junior Eli Devita, who was second on the team in batting average, is back.

Apollo-Ridge missed the playoffs by one spot and graduated Brandon Butler, who’s now at Slippery Rock. The Vikings return three starters.

Leechburg finished second in Section 2-A behind Union. Seven seniors graduated, but a young, talented core hopes to make another run at the postseason led by sophomores Chase Henry and Rocco Vigna and juniors Jayden Floyd and Jake Cummings.

“Our expectations remain the same,” Leechburg coach Heath Shimer said. “We want to win the section, make playoffs and ultimately play for a WPIAL championship. If I didn’t set my sights there, I think I’d be doing a disservice to the boys, who have been working on offseason conditioning since January.”

Springdale is hoping to be in the playoff mix. The Dynamos return reigning Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year John Hughes.

Hughes hit .649 to win the WPIAL batting title and had 78 strikeouts as a pitcher.

St. Joseph has a dozen players, but seven of them are returning starters, including top returning hitter Noah Cooper and pitcher Owen Swanson.

Players to watch

Spencer Sells, Sr., C, Apollo-Ridge

Jacob Fairbanks, Sr., RHP/OF, Apollo-Ridge

AJ McLafferty, Sr., OF/RHP, Burrell

Mike McKay, Sr., C, Burrell

Ryan Cochran, Sr., OF, Deer Lakes

Mitchell Epstein, Sr., C, Fox Chapel

Jeremy Haigh, Jr., LHP/OF, Fox Chapel

Troy Susnak, Sr., INF, Fox Chapel

Christian Wilkinson, Sr., RHP/INF, Fox Chapel

Matt Corfield, Sr., RHP/INF, Freeport

Malik Febinger, Sr., RHP/INF, Freeport

Michael Hanz, Jr., RHP, Freeport

Luke Bombalski, Sr., UTIL, Highlands

Blake Fritz, Sr., OF, Kiski Area

Carter Leviski, Sr., RHP/C, Kiski Area

Jacob Smith, Sr., RHP/INF, Kiski Area

Brady Wozniak, Sr., INF, Knoch

Chase Henry, So., RHP/INF, Leechburg

Rocco Vigna, So., C, Leechburg

Daniel Macioce, Jr., INF, Plum

Erik Streussnig, Sr., RHP, Plum

Colin Watson, Sr., RHP, Plum

Eli Devita, Jr., INF, Riverview

John Hughes, Sr., INF/OF, Springdale

Owen Swanson, Sr., RHP/INF, St. Joseph

Tyler Danko, Sr., RHP/OF, Valley

Niko Heakins, Sr., LHP/OF, Valley

Jacob Staraniec, Sr., RHP/INF, Valley

Wesley Schrock, Sr., LHP/OF, Valley

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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