Created out of pandemic necessity, league plays ball for a 2nd summer

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Wednesday, August 4, 2021 | 5:36 PM


The Western Pennsylvania Summer Baseball League’s second season didn’t have the same number of teams as the inaugural version last summer in the midst of the covid pandemic, but for programs such as Highlands, Fox Chapel and Kiski Area, the on-field experience held just as much weight.

“We had a healthy mix of 60 to 70% varsity guys with some younger guys getting the chance to show what they had to offer and what they could do,” said Matt Kamenicky, Fox Chapel’s summer coach who also served as the coach for the Foxes middle school team in the spring.

“It was a good way for players who needed to get more reps who might not have gotten as many during the season. They definitely got them this summer.”

Fox Chapel played 10 games and finished with a record of 2-8. On the surface, that might not look like success, but Kamenicky said the goal of the summer season, as it was for many of the teams, was to get experience.

“We had guys go on vacation at times, and we were pulling and plugging the lineup from all over,” Kamenicky said. “We had fluctuating numbers for each game, but that is expected during the summer. But 10 games is 10 games of reps and experience. For what every team is able to do and how many games they play, it’s better than nothing at all.”

More than 30 teams were a part of last year’s league formation, which came about after the spring high school and summer American Legion seasons were canceled because of covid.

Coaches got together with other baseball officials to give those players a chance to have a season with their teammates from high school.

Irwin Area, a team filled with players from the Norwin high school team, routed Belle Vernon, 15-1, to claim last year’s title.

Matt Baic, the senior baseball coordinator for the Cranberry Township Athletic Association, helped support the team from Seneca Valley, which won this year’s title July 28 with a 3-2 victory over Ingomar (North Allegheny) at Boyce-Mayview Field in Upper St. Clair.

Baic also served as one of the lead officials for this summer’s league, which hosted 13 programs. A number of those programs fielded both varsity and JV teams.

“There were a lot more opportunities for players this summer with travel ball teams, American Legion returning in some areas and other leagues,” Baic said.

“I had talked with (2020 league coordinator) Bob Johnson, and he said that last year, with a lot of leagues canceled, we were the only game in town. Even with the 12 to 13 teams this year, there were some teams that might not have had enough players for games. I had a roster of 19 (for the varsity team), and sometimes I played with 10. Twice I had to play with call-ups. I had the high-water mark of 16 for the championship game.

“But it was all about making sure, again, that the players had as many opportunities to play as possible. We had free substitutions, and other rules were relaxed. You wanted to see the competitiveness from the teams, but we also wanted to make sure the development side was happening.”

Ten teams, including Highlands, Kiski Area and Fox Chapel, entered the playoff tournament. Highlands and Kiski met in the first round, with the Summer Rams, the No. 6 seed, earning an 8-4 victory. One of two teams from Washington tripped up Highlands, 9-5, in the quarterfinals.

The Summer Rams finished with a record of 6-7.

“We had a varsity and a JV team, but with some of the varsity guys also playing travel ball, we used a lot of our JV players to fill our varsity roster,” said Highlands coach Jeff Campbell, whose summer team is sponsored by Brackenridge American Legion.

“It kind of helped in the fact that while the JV players got that experience in JV games, they also got the chance to be with the older kids and play varsity level baseball.”

Campbell said the option was there in the spring to form the summer squad as a Legion team.

“It came down to Allegheny County not having too many Legion teams, so we decided to go the (WPSBL) rout,” Campbell said.

“It was good because we were able to schedule local teams, and we didn’t have as much travel as we would’ve had we done Legion. It also gave us the opportunity to have JV. Any time you can play and get reps in the summer, no matter what the league or format is, it’s a bonus.”

Campbell said he was happy that four Highlands seniors — Trent Bielak (Pitt-Bradford baseball), Luke Beer (Saint Vincent baseball), DJ Loveland (Edinboro football) and Tyrus Kerr — were able to play one more series of games together.

Aaron Albert, also the coach for Kiski’s high school team in the spring, said his players, who played on both varsity and JV teams this summer, also benefited greatly from the game experience.

“We had 10 games, if you combine what each team was able to play,” Albert said. “We didn’t have everybody all the time, but any reps you can have to help get you ready for next spring, I’ll take it. Having a pitcher throw to a catcher he will work with in the spring is always a good thing.”

Kiski and Highlands met three times overall this summer. Kiski won the first two meetings before Highlands claimed the playoff matchup.

“Highlands is a very good Class 4A program and a playoff team, so I think it was a great benefit playing those guys, and I hope they benefited from playing us,” Albert said. “We are now talking about playing each other in the spring, which we haven’t done much in the past.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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