Bethel Park chasing another section baseball title and more

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Friday, April 23, 2021 | 8:37 AM


Bethel Park baseball is striving for a banner season in 2021.

And with ample reasons.

The Black Hawks, section champions and WPIAL semifinalists in 2019, were among the favorites to win the Class 6A title a year ago.

“My expectations were pretty high going into this season,” coach Pat Zehnder said. “We have a pretty young roster overall, especially experience-wise with not having a season last year. We have five sophomores with large roles, but they are essentially going into their first year of high school baseball.

“We have good senior leadership and some juniors with varsity experience from 2019, so I think it is a good mix and we are fortunate to have great character throughout the team.”

Bethel Park started out 10-2 in 2019 before finishing 15-5, and several players from that roster are back this year.

The 2021 group is led by senior pitcher/center fielder Eric Chalus, a Kent State recruit who was an all-section selection in 2019 after going 6-2 with a 1.13 ERA.

“We want to win the section title, move onto the WPIAL championship and go to states,” said Chalus, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound left-hander whose go-to pitch is his curveball. “Our expectations are to play some good baseball and go out there and play together.”

Several things drew Chalus to choosing Kent State. He plans to major in sports administration.

“It is a great school. Kent State is the perfect size and has a beautiful campus. It had everything I was looking for in a college and more,” he said. “Kent State has the best pitching coach (Mike Birkbeck) in the country, and that was the deal-breaker for me. All the coaches are great and very easy to get along with.

“I did have other colleges contacting me, and it was a very hard decision because they were great schools, too.”

Outfielder Larry Kusan (Davis & Elkins) and catcher Zack Sackett (Geneva) also are back for their senior season with the Black Hawks.

The senior class also is represented by Sawyer D’Andrea, Dan DelBene, Josh Peters, Shane Hamel, Ethan Nerone and Jimmy Gasper.

Will Sokira, Dylan Schmude, Bo Conrad, Ben Hudson, David Kessler and Cody Geddes are juniors. Top sophomore prospects include Sebastian Schein, Jason Nuttridge, Evan Holewinski, John Chalus, Evan LeJeune, Nathan Vargo and Ray Altmeyer.

Nuttridge, Eric Chalus, Kessler, Geddes, Conrad, Altameyer, Holewinski, Vargo, John Chalus, Hudson, Hamel and Sackett were multigame starters early in the season.

“We are still trying to finalize our starting lineup,” Zehnder said. “I am extremely excited for this season and am proud of the players for the way they have practiced and played so far.”

Kessler, with a .625 batting average, Nuttridge (.353), Geddes (.333) and Eric Chalus (.316) led the team in hitting in the early going. Kessler had a .938 slugging percentage and .714 on-base percentage and led in RBIs.

On the mound, Eric Chalus (0.64 ERA) and Holewinski (0.70 ERA) were 2-0, while Vargo and Sokira had one save apiece.

Bethel Park (4-1, 2-0) was ranked No. 4 in Class 5A in the Trib HSSN preseason baseball rankings, behind West Allegheny, Mars and Franklin Regional.

“Fortunately, the guys have been playing some pretty good baseball to start the year,” Zehnder said.

“We won our first four games playing pretty solid baseball in all facets. Pitchers were throwing strikes, defense was playing very well and we were getting the timely hitting we needed.”

The Black Hawks, who have won section crowns in three of the past four seasons, are in Section 4-5A this season along with Albert Gallatin, Connellsville, Peters Township, Thomas Jefferson and Trinity.

Two of Bethel Park’s first four wins were shutouts against Trinity. The Black Hawks lost a 13-9 decision April 9 to Baldwin.

“We lost against a tough Baldwin team,” Zehnder said, “but I like the way the team responded to that loss in practice the next day. Still a very long way to go, but a promising start so far.”

From 2011-19, Bethel Park advanced to the WPIAL playoffs eight times (in nine years), including the last five seasons in a row.

“It was definitely tough not having a season last year,” Zehnder said. “We had 11 seniors returning with varsity experience, and strong younger players to fill various roles. I continue to feel terrible for the seniors who didn’t have a chance to play their final year of high school baseball. Many of them also wanted to play baseball at the next level, and they are encountering a logjam of players at that level, too, as all of those players received an extra year of eligibility.

“Having so many seniors last year also presented the challenge of having a team this year with little-to-no high school varsity experience. We are fortunate to have a great group of kids who work hard and are very hungry. They have adjusted well so far.”

The Black Hawks tried to make up for lost time through fall and winter baseball programming.

“I was glad to be able to get the fall and winter programs going, which obviously had to be modified with covid restrictions,” Zehnder said. “But at least a lot of the guys playing this year were able to go through those seasons with the new coaching staff twice now.”

After serving as a BP’s junior varsity coach for four seasons, Zehnder was hired as field boss in 2020.

“This is technically my second year as head coach,” Zehnder said, “but first real spring season as head coach. I accepted a special education teacher job at Bethel Park for the 2015-16 school year.”

Zehnder also coached the JV team at Elizabeth Forward for two seasons after a two-year stint as the ninth grade coach at North Hills.

He played in high school at Ambridge and in college at Westminster.

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