Hampton baseball to rely on small, talented senior class

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Thursday, March 21, 2019 | 10:59 PM


When first-year coach Kellen Wheeler sat down his five baseball seniors after he accepted the job last winter, he had a message: They’re going to play, and they’re all going to lead.

Wheeler is the third coach of Hampton baseball in less than a year. After Gary Wilson stepped down following more than two decades on and off, long-time North Hills assistant Steve Long was hired.

But after the North Hills job opened up late last year, Long, a native and current teacher at the school, resigned. That left an opening for Wheeler, who had been JV coach for two years after serving as an assistant for seven.

“(Steve’s) coaching philosophy, we kind of have the same mentality,” said Wheeler, who played under Wilson from 1999 to 2002. “Just his way of getting to the kids, making sure they’re having fun and not just winning, but doing it the right way.”

One advantage Wheeler has is longevity in the program. A 2002 Hampton graduate, he played under Gary Wilson for four years, and with nearly a decade of coaching experience with the program, he knows all the players who have come through it.

“Coach Kel is a great guy,” senior catcher Burke Camper said. “He brings great energy. He’s always pumped at practice, has a plan and is ready to go. He’s very communicative towards the players, and he knows what’s good for us, what’s bad and has really been pushing us hard to the best of our ability.”

Wheeler knows a lot about doing things from learning under Wilson, who stepped down after last year but has not left the program. He is the coach of the middle school.

“I think that’s going to help the program at the younger level a lot better than it possibly could have been before,” Wheeler said.

The high school program has been getting better the past few years and finished 14-4 last year, including a trip to the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals and coming within one win of a state playoff berth.

This year, the team will be led by five seniors, including three Division I talents: Camper (Towson), pitcher/outfielder Casey Marshalwitz (Youngstown State) and shortstop Tyler Bischke (Kent State).

“We’ve all been around the game for a long time,” Camper said. “Each one of us I know has put in a lot of hours in the offseason preparing our craft, getting better. It’s really shown the past couple years with the success we’ve been having.”

First baseman Sean Mikulan, who recently committed to Penn State Behrend, and second baseman Jon Ibinson complete a solid corps of seniors with at least a year of starting experience.

Wheeler sat the group down after taking the job and named each of them a captain.

‘I said, ‘Guys, we’re not going to have one captain this year. You five guys are going to be starters, and you’re all going to be captains. You need to take control of this team in practice, in games and go have fun with it.’

“Usually if you lose 10 seniors, you’re in for a rebuild year,” Wheeler said. “But we stepped into this year having five senior starters, and they’re going to have a huge impact.”

The pitching will start with Marshalwitz and also include junior third baseman Brendan Erka, who was blocked by older talent last year but is expected to step in and perform. Adam Stroud, who is battling shoulder issues, hopes to have his arm ready for section play.

“I would say our success comes down to two things,” Camper said. “One is pitching. In the right locations, getting guys to ground out … I think that’s going to be key this year for us to compete in this section. Another thing is timely hitting. Middle of the lineup or bottom of the lineup, no matter where it is.”

Camper was one of the top underclassmen in the WPIAL last year, batting 29 of 53 (.547). He figures to be in the conversation for one of the top catchers in the WPIAL this year.

“He’s one of the hardest-working kids that has ever come through the program,” Wheeler said.

The five seniors and Erka form the backbone of the team’s strength: the infield. Aside from left fielder Marshalwitz, the outfield is more of a question mark.

Junior Will Schuit starts in center, and right field looks like junior Joey Kuzniewski, though freshman Adam Dembowski has shown promise. Sophomore John Rizzo will provide depth in what might be the toughest section Hampton has seen in a long time.

Three teams were WPIAL semifinalists last year (North Hills, Moon, Hampton). Moon was a WPIAL title contender before the Talbots routed the Tigers in the second round. Shaler is a traditionally larger school moving down from Class 6A, and South Fayette moves up as the defending WPIAL 4A Champions.

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