Hempfield baseball ready to tackle new challenges

Wednesday, March 24, 2021 | 4:46 PM

There is a new challenge facing the Hempfield baseball team in 2021: a new section with four new opponents.

Class 6A in the WPIAL went from 18 teams to 12 teams for the next two seasons.

Section 1 stayed intact with Allderdice, Butler, Central Catholic, North Allegheny, Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley. Sections 2 and 3 were combined.

Section 2 now features Hempfield and Norwin from Section 2 and Baldwin, Canon-McMillan, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair from Section 3. Dropping to Class 5A were Connellsville, Latrobe, Penn-Trafford, Plum, Bethel Park and Peters Township.

Also new this season is playing back-to-back games against section opponents on consecutive days.

“I really like the new format,” coach Tim Buzzard said. “Playing back-to-back days will challenge your pitching staff. Baseball is meant to be played in a series. I’d like to see it in the playoffs.”

Buzzard said teams will be forced to win games different ways.

As for the new section, Buzzard said all the new opponents have strong programs and good coaches.

“We’ve played Mt. Lebanon in the past, and the guys at Norwin do a great job,” Buzzard said. “Upper St. Clair beat us in the playoffs two years ago, Canon-McMillan recently won the WPIAL and PIAA titles, and Baldwin has a new coach (Steve Bucci) who has done well at Canon-McMillan and South Park. It’s going to be a challenge and long bus rides, but I like it.”

Hempfield returns four starters from the 2019 squad that finished 11-10 and dropped a 6-3 game to Upper St. Clair in the WPIAL playoffs.

The four starters are seniors pitcher/outfielder Phil Fox, first baseman Mike Hosni and pitcher/third baseman Christian Zilli, and junior second baseman Aiden Dunlap. Zilli, Fox and senior catcher Lucas Anderson will serve as captains.

Fox has signed a Division I scholarship with Gardner Webb and Zilli is headed to Seton Hill. Dunlap is injured but is expected to return later this season. He plays second base.

Other returning lettermen include senior pitcher/infielder Brayden Patton, senior pitcher/infielder Hunter Smiles and senior outfielder Reese Woodley.

Smiles plans to play at Waynesburg, and Patton, who had Tommy John surgery, will attend Westmoreland County Community College. Patton won’t pitch this spring, but he will be able to swing the bat.

Senior pitcher Tyler Mull is also vying for playing time along with outfielder Jayson Jacob, outfielder Brandon Coughlin, shortstop Joe Fiedor, infielder Jake Kramer and infielder Ryan Firmstone. Coughlin, Fiedor and Firmstone are also pitchers. Coughlin has committed to play at Lehigh.

“We have a lot of guys who can pitch,” Buzzard said. “We try to develop a strong staff because you never know when you’ll need them.”

Buzzard said there is a lot of unknown about his squad. He said the coronavirus last year took a learning year away from the underclassmen.

“One good thing we have going in practice is competition for playing time,” Buzzard said. “We’ll have a battle for positions.”

And if the Spartans can jell, they should contend for the section title and playoffs.

In 2018, the Spartans won the section title and reached the WPIAL semifinals before falling to North Allegheny.

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at pschofield@triblive.com.


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