‘Championship atmosphere’ made WPIAL finals memorable for Bethel Park baseball

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Saturday, June 5, 2021 | 11:33 AM


WPIAL Class 5A runner-up.

It’s not what they were striving to achieve. It is, nonetheless, a worthy feat that capped a sensational season for the Bethel Park baseball team.

The top two squads in 5A met June 1 in the league championship game at Wild Things Park in Washington.

Top-seeded Franklin Regional edged No. 2 Bethel Park, 2-1, to claim its first WPIAL baseball title in 20 years. The Panthers, who also won crowns in 1997 and 2001, improved to 19-1.

“It was definitely a championship atmosphere,” Bethel Park coach Pat Zehnder said. “There was great energy from the crowd and both dugouts. Every pitch mattered and every play was made or missed in high-leverage situations. The loss still stings, but eventually we will all be able to look back on that atmosphere and marvel at how cool that was to be a part of. Now we can use that experience to help us come out on top next time.

“I couldn’t be more proud of this group for the grit and determination they have shown on a daily basis. They never give in no matter the situation and have found different ways to win games. To continue battling like they did against a great pitcher having a great day shows the type of character and determination this team has.”

Bethel Park closed out its WPIAL schedule with an 18-4 record and a first-place finish in Section 4 and had a 10-game winning streak.

It was the Black Hawks’ 10th championship appearance. Bethel Park won titles in 1985 and ‘87.

On paper, it appeared winning the 5A championship would boil down to the Black Hawks’ pitching against Franklin Regional’s hitting.

It turned instead into a tightly contested pitcher’s duel between Bethel Park’s ace, senior Eric Chalus, and FR senior Brian Pirone.

“I thought it was a well-played game by both sides,” Chalus said. “I was mainly throwing my fastball, and it was working all game. I threw some curves and changeups to mess with the hitters a little.

“Both teams wanted to win and it showed. The deciding factor for this type of game is who makes less mistakes. Unfortunately, we were on the end where we made one too many mistakes. I couldn’t be more proud of this team on how we handled it and continued to compete.”

A Kent State recruit, Chalus tossed six strong innings, allowing five hits and one unearned run while striking out eight and not walking a batter. Pirone, a Seton Hill commit, went the distance on a three-hit, five-strikeout, no-walk performance.

Bethel Park nicked Pirone for an unearned run in the seventh inning thanks to a clutch two-out, two-strike single by senior C/OF Zack Sackett in a pinch-hitting role. Sackett also delivered a walk-off pinch-hit RBI single against West Allegheny in the semifinal round.

“Zack has been unbelievable in that late-game pinch hitting role,” Zehnder said. “It is one of the hardest jobs to do — coming off the bench late in a game in pressure situations — but he has a great mentality and confidence in himself and refuses to give in. He seemed to relish that role later in the year, and we’d communicate with each other as games got to the fourth inning or beyond about when he may be needed.

“He does a great job staying in the game mentally so he is ready whenever his number is called. He had a pinch-hit triple in our first playoff game, leadoff two-base error (some would call it a double) in the quarterfinal, the walk-off single in the semis, then the game-tying single in the championship. You can’t do it much better than that.”

Franklin Regional won the title in bottom of the seventh when Andrew Muraco, a senior second baseman, laced a run-scoring hit to deep center field with two outs.

“Franklin Regional is one of the most complete teams you can ever face,” Zehnder said. “They play well defensively, have great pitching and one of the best lineups you will see out of a high school team.

“It was such a great game with two great teams battling it out. Hats off to them for coming back after what could have been a huge blow to their momentum and finding a way to walk it off. Franklin Regional earned that championship with their response. We hope to have another opportunity to compete against them in the state playoffs.”

The dominant Black Hawks have one of the top pitching staffs in the WPIAL this year.

Led by a double dose of “Vitamin E” — senior Eric Chalus and sophomore Evan Holewinski — at the top of the rotation, nine of the team’s 18 victories were attained via shutouts.

Chalus blanked No. 3 West Allegheny, 1-0, in the WPIAL semifinals. He logged a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts and one walk.

During the regular season, Chalus went 6-0 with 48 strikeouts in 38 innings and posted a 0.92 ERA. The left-handed hurler allowed only five earned runs, walked one and hit one.

Holewinski was 5-0 with 30 strikeouts in 27 innings and didn’t allow an earned run or issue a single walk. He hit two batters.

After playing first base all game against Franklin Regional, Holewinski, a tall, slender righty, stepped onto the mound in relief in the bottom of the seventh, giving up two hits and one intentional walk.

Franklin Regional went into the WPIAL finals averaging 8.2 runs per game after scoring 31 times in its three previous playoff contests. The Panthers took first place in Section 1 and won 14 in a row in the season’s first two months.

Bethel Park hit .309 as a team, scored 128 runs and had a .401 slugging percentage prior to the playoffs.

Junior shortstop David Kessler and Chalus wrapped up the regular season with .474 and .404 batting averages.

Kessler led the club in several categories — hits (27), runs (21), on-base percentage (.577), home runs (2), slugging percentage (.649), walks (14), total bases (37) and stolen bases (10).

“We had a great run in the WPIAL playoffs,” Kessler said. “This was our third pitchers’ duel of the playoffs. Obviously, the results weren’t want we wanted, but the team with the most hits and fewest mistakes is going to come out on top.

“It was an awesome experience to be a part of — two great teams fighting in a championship game that not many get the opportunity to be in. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything in the world. I’m proud of each and everyone on this journey. We aren’t done though. After a tough loss like that, we are going to be ready to bounce back and be fired up for states.”

Cody Geddes, a junior third baseman, also hit .340 with a team-leading 22 RBIs and two triples for Bethel Park. He ranked second in runs (18), slugging percentage (.547), walks (11) and total bases (29).

Junior outfielder Ben Hudson chipped in with a .375 batting average in 36 plate appearances.

The pitching corps, consisting of Chalus, Holewinski, Geddes (three saves), seniors Dan DelBene, Josh Peters and Jimmy Gasper, junior Will Sokira and sophomores Nathan Vargo, Evan LeJeune and Sebstian Schein, compiled a composite 1.82 ERA.

BP pitchers allowed 32 earned runs and fanned 129 in 123.1 innings.

Bethel Park defeated Chartiers Valley, 9-0, Shaler, 3-2, and WA in the first WPIAL’s first three rounds.

“I just wish things could have turned out better for this group (in the WPIAL final) for how much they have put into this year,” Zehnder said. “The guys should keep their heads up for how they fought and be proud for what they have accomplished so far.

“Our work is not finished yet.”

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