Fun times for Ligonier Valley baseball under 1st-year coach Marabito

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 | 7:03 PM


The old pie in the face is a time-honored tradition in baseball, however hokey and overplayed it might be. Players of all levels often get splattered with the sweets during postgame interviews.

At Ligonier Valley, an assistant coach got his just desserts at a recent practice because he finished last in a March Madness basketball challenge.

The winner got to, well, rub it in. A whole cherry pie, right in the eye.

It’s just one of the quirky things this team has done this season to keep the mood loose — and the wins coming.

Throw in stick-ball games in the gym and outside-the-tarp parties and practice takes on a whole new meaning for the Rams, a fun-loving bunch who aren’t taking themselves too seriously under first-year coach Brett Marabito.

“If you follow us on Twitter, you definitely see the fun side of things because nobody is interested in watching a 20-minute video on bunt coverages,” said Marabito, 26, a former standout athlete at Laurel Valley. “Our guys put in a lot of hard work so we like to mix things up every once in a while especially, when we’re indoors. These guys sit in school all day then come to practice, and we want that to be an enjoyable part of the day, not them dreading coming here. So we try our best to put some fun twists into regular drills and add in some competition.”

Assistant Tim Caldwell took the pie incident in stride. It’s just part of the “brand” — or as they hashtag it on Twitter, #OurBrand.

Here is another tradition the team has started: winning.

Sure, the program has had winning seasons before. Marabito did not take over a clunker by any means. But this group is off to one of its best starts at 9-0 overall and 7-0 in the Heritage Conference.

Marabito tells his players to “spread the energy.” They also spread the wealth. A recent stat report had five players batting better than .400.

“I can’t take much credit at all for what this group is doing,” Marabito said. “Coach Caldwell and I are really only creating the environment for this group. With the athletes we have we know that the less stress we put on them, the more their athletic abilities take over, and that’s where a lot of the success comes from.”

Ligonier Valley has scored 107 runs and has reached double figures in runs in all but two games, both against Greensburg Central Catholic.

“We want to go out and play our brand,” junior pitcher and infielder Michael Marinchak said. “Coach knows when we’re not playing up to our potential. He wants us to stay in every game. If we stay in the game, yell in the dugout, get their pitcher rattled and go from there.”

An uber-talented crop of seniors and juniors also has the Rams leading the league in athleticism. Seven of the nine starters played on the perennially strong football team.

“We’re all looking to soak up the moment and have fun playing baseball together,” junior Sam Sheeder said. “We’ve had a lot of experience in this sport as a team with the same group of guys, so at heart we’re still playing it like we’re those same little kids.”

While he is just as interested in keeping the mood fun and the game simple as he is keeping the Rams fundamentally sound, Marabito said allowing his team to be itself has been a key element to the success.

“Our guys aren’t afraid to make a mistake, and that’s what it takes to be a great ball team, willing to take risks and trust that the work you put in will allow success to happen,” said Marabito, who drags the field and paints bases before home games. “We really focus on taking pride in doing all of the little things right, rep after rep. Whether that’s working on flips in the middle infield or simply following a throw after fielding a ground ball. Some of the guys look at me like I’m nuts sometimes doing a random daily task, and I remind them that you have to enjoy the little things if you want to be great at the big things.”

Sheeder said the fun side of the Rams is player-driven.

“We’ve been playing against each other in little league since we were 6, and then in the summer we’d play on the same all-star team and later, on the same Junior Legion team,” he said. “Growing up playing baseball, and a lot of us playing other sports together, we are a tight-knit group of guys who’s been through ups and downs. We all have fun, but at the end of the day we have the most fun winning. We have each other’s backs and each of us knows that. It helps us through those tough in-game scenarios. Nobody doubts themselves on this team and nobody doubts another player’s abilities either, and that’s definitely what separates us.”

The Rams seem to balance each laugh with a hustle play, knowing when to flip the switch back to serious, when to flip the bat and went to bunt with it.

“I think that’s why we’re going be a hard team to beat,” Sheeder said. “Because we’re not out there for our own stats or fielding to look good. We bat for the guys on base and the guys on deck, and we play the field for the guy on the mound.”

Marabito, as upbeat a coach as he was a player at Laurel Valley and Pitt-Johnstown, accepts the idea of teams taking on the personality of its coach, but isn’t completely buying into it with this team.

“I think they’re just really buying into being themselves,” said Marabito, who also coached at IUP. “My senior leadership in John Caldwell, Andrew Kuzemchak and Sullivan Schueltz really are the ones setting the tone. All the guys see how they work, the fun they have, and then energy they bring and I truly think that elevates the rest of this group. Great senior leadership is much more key, in my opinion, than the coach, because those guys are much more relatable to the rest of the group.”

“We have a lot of fun,” Marinchak said. “We like to keep it competitive at practice, not to the point where we want to kill each other, To the point we want to go at each other to win.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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