Belle Vernon baseball leans on middle of its lineup for experience

Thursday, March 7, 2019 | 3:27 PM

Belle Vernon’s baseball team enters the season with many questions.

The Leopards just hope they can get out onto the practice field to address them before games begin. The squad was confined to indoor work for much of last season because of the weather.

“Things have been going well. This will be kind of a different team since we had a lot of seniors last year. We overachieved, in my estimation, for the simple reason that we never got onto the field to practice one time during the regular season with the weather the way it was,” Belle Vernon coach Daryl Hixenbaugh said.

“We did a lot of things inside. What really has us concerned right now is that we don’t know how good we’re going to be. We’re not varsity-tested in a lot of places. These guys didn’t have an opportunity as JV players last year to practice on the field to learn things that some of the experienced guys already knew going into the season. We have a lot of question marks.”

One certainty is Belle Vernon is set at middle infield with the return of senior shortstop Josh Hoffman and sophomore second baseman Garrett Greco.

“Josh is the heart and soul of the team. In 52 years of coaching baseball, he’s the best player I’ve ever had. I’ve only had one other five-tool player in all those years, and he was on a collegiate summer team,” Hixenbaugh said. “Josh has a chance to be really special. He’s fast. He throws across the infield at 89-90 MPH, just like the average major league arm. He hits for average, power and is an outstanding fielder.

“He’s the one we will build around. How the pieces fall in around him will be the big question mark. There’s some talented kids here. But with inexperience, how will they react on the field? That’s the big thing we’re concerned about.”

Hoffman is a Youngstown State recruit and Hixenbaugh believes Greco has a bright future, as well.

“He was one of the leading hitters in the WPIAL as a ninth grader. He has shot to be a pretty good player,” he said.

Senior Logan Seliga, once he wraps up wrestling season, will return as the team’s center fielder. Senior Cole Naylor brings back the most experience on the mound and will catch, too. Seniors Max Gauden and Mason Pascoe will be in the outfield, as well.

“There’s a lot of competition (for all the positions),” Hixenbaugh said. “I hesitate to say who will be where until we get outside and see.”

Naylor, who tossed a no-hitter against South Park last year, is back as the ace of the pitching staff. Seniors Erik Pietrantoni, Tyler Steadman and Gauden, along with freshman lefty Andrew Sokol, could all see starting time on the mound. Andrew Kostelnik, Greco and Seliga could see innings in relief, as well.

“We’ve had a great winter program. We’re just hoping it translates over to the spring. In years past going into the season, we’ve had a pretty good idea of the team we’d have and what we’d do,” Hixenbaugh said. “This year, we’ll be searching for the first couple of weeks and finding the right combinations.

“Every season presents a different challenge. For me, that’s what keeps me going. I’ve gone through this kind of thing in the past, too.”

Last year, the Leopards finished 11-6 after a 3-1 loss to Hopewell in the first round of the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs. They finished tied for second in Section 3 at 10-4.

“I think the section will be wide open this year because a lot of guys graduated from a lot of teams,” Hixenbaugh said. “Ringgold will be good again. South Park is always good, and Uniontown will be playing a lot of young guys. I don’t know what TJ and McKeesport have coming into the section this season. Those are two big question marks for everyone.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.


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