Despite early exit, seniors led Hampton baseball this season

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Thursday, May 30, 2019 | 10:08 PM


When Hampton baseball players look back on this season, they will remember it as one of the most consistent and successful in recent memory.

The Talbots (12-6, 8-2) endured one the tougher sections in the WPIAL: Section 2-5A. It featured three of the four WPIAL finalists from last season, including the champion (North Hills) and runner-up (Mars). It also featured last season’s WPIAL Class 4A champions, South Fayette, and the 2019 WPIAL champions (Shaler).

“We knew coming into the section it was going to be a battle,” senior catcher Burke Camper said. “We had a lot of guys ready to pitch and a lot of guys step up and help. When guys like (Tyler) Bischke, Casey (Marshalwitz) and myself didn’t have their best days, others picked up. We were playing for each other, which is why I think we had so much success.”

That’s an accurate summary of the season for the Talbots. They won the section title outright by two games without doing anything fancy or prolific. The team had so much depth, it was better than its opponent when needed.

Coach Kellen Wheeler highlighted two extra-inning victories against rival Mars — one in eight innings and one in nine — as an example.

“That was a great learning experience for not only our seniors but underclassmen, as well,” he said. “I was able to get (players) that hadn’t seen a varsity inning into those games for at least one inning. So I think that’s good for the coming years, too.”

Hampton nearly swept all three of the section’s playoff qualifiers, going a combined 5-1 against Mars, Shaler and South Fayette.

Much of that was because of the leadership of its small contingent of seniors, four of whom will play in college: Camper (Towson), Marshalwitz (Youngstown State), Bischke (Kent State) and Sean Mikulan and John Ibinson (Penn State Behrend).

“It’s a close group,” said Camper, who led the team in hitting (.490), runs (24) and RBIs (19). “I love all these guys. They’re my brothers. Even since our freshman year, I really connected with them, and we’ve stayed pretty close. I was happy we could just help the younger guys get better for next season. I think we all brought an aspect of that in some way to help everybody.”

Camper, whom Wheeler calls “the best catcher in the WPIAL,” set the tone. Bischke was a terror on the basepaths, compiling nearly half (19) of the team’s stolen bases (43).

“Sean and John, they did their part in every aspect,” Wheeler said. “Sean defensively, and John came around halfway through the season and really got his bat going.”

Marshalwitz pitched up to his ace reputation, going 4-0 with 43 strikeouts.

All of the accolades and regular-season wins perhaps make the end result a more bitter pill to swallow as the playoffs transition to states. The Talbots had potential for a deep run, but one tough game is all it takes, and that’s what happened.

The bats were not enough in a 8-5 quarterfinals loss to Laurel Highlands, which saw junior starter Brendan Erka give up four in the first before settling down. The Talbots rallied, but the deficit was too large.

Erka received high marks from the coaching staff, leading the team in wins (5-1) this season.

Wheeler and Camper felt somewhat victimized by their success. The bye given to Hampton resulted in a two-week layoff.

“The byes are a blessing and a curse,” Camper said. “You get that extra time off, but you want to keep playing and staying fresh. I do think it hurt us in some respects. But that being said, you have to bring your A-game. And we just didn’t produce the way we should have.”

Of the four teams that received byes in 5A, only Franklin Regional advanced to the semifinals.

Going into the offseason, Hampton will need to find offense to replace the five seniors.

However, the pitching should be solid, with Erka and junior designated hitter Adam Stroud looking to take the lead.

The latter showed flashes a sophomore but was shut down as a pitcher this season because of shoulder issues.

Freshman Adam Dembowski, sophomore Michael Kosko and junior Joey Kuzniewski will round out a strong pitching staff.

“We’re going to have the pitching next year,” Wheeler said. “It’s going to be the hitting. We’re going to have to find other guys that can hit the ball next year.”

As for Wheeler’s first year as coach — he took over after Steve Long resigned to fill the coaching vacancy at North Hills over the winter — he proved worthy of the role. He walked away from his first season with section coach of the year honors.

Wheeler served two years as junior varsity coach, and nine overall, on his journey to the position. He believes it helped that he had already coached the majority of his players, set expectations early and had a strong group of seniors.

“My players, they understood who I was going into the season,” Wheeler said. “I think that helps a lot. They knew what I expected of them. They made it easy on me as I made it easy on them.”

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