Hempfield baseball’s PIAA journey begins in Erie against McDowell

Sunday, June 6, 2021 | 6:24 PM

Tim Buzzard and his Hempfield Area baseball team are starting to get used to extended seasons.

This is the third time in eight seasons the Spartans have qualified for the PIAA playoffs, and their hope the journey takes them two more weeks and ends with a trip to State College.

Hempfield, the WPIAL Class 6A runner-up, begins this chapter Monday with a trip to Erie to play District 10 champion McDowell at Mercyhurst University. The game begins at 1 p.m.

McDowell (14-6) needed to rally in the PIAA sub-regional to defeat District 6 champion Mifflin County, 5-3, to reach the 16-team bracket.

“I don’t know much about them except what I’ve found online,” Hempfield coach Tim Buzzard said. “It’s going to be a test for us traveling there. We’re searching for a place to take batting practice since the cages at Mercyhurst are unavailable.”

Hempfield (15-8) is coming off a 4-0 loss to North Allegheny in its first trip to the WPIAL finals. The Spartans were overmatched by Tigers pitcher Kyle Demi, who was throwing 92-94 mph early in the game.

“He wasn’t throwing that hard the first time we faced him,” Buzzard said. “But he had it going in the finals.

“You can’t win if you can’t score. We thought we were prepared, but he was just too strong that game.”

Hempfield has a 1-2 record in the PIAA playoffs. The Spartans defeated WPIAL champion and rival Norwin, 5-1, in the 2016 playoffs before losing to Plum, 5-0. In 2013, the Spartans dropped a 3-1 decision to North Allegheny.

This is the Spartans’ first game in the PIAA playoffs against a team from another district.

There is a good chance the Spartans will face McDowell junior ace pitcher Dan Snyder, a power pitcher.

Snyder nearly averages 1.5 strikeouts per inning, but he struggled with his control against Mifflin County as he walked six, struck out six and had a wild pitch. Snyder also is a decent hitter. He had a double in a five-run fourth inning in the play-in game.

The top hitters for McDowell are senior center fielder Jackson Hower, who is batting .500 with seven doubles and 12 RBIs, and senior shortstop Sam Crowley is hitting .452 with 21 RBIs.

McDowell is 1-11 in the PIAA playoffs. Its lone win came in 1982 against Hopewell. They have dropped 10 consecutive games, including a 4-1 loss to North Allegheny in 2019.

Buzzard probably will counter with junior Phil Fox in the PIAA opener. Fox was the losing pitcher in the championship.

His other options are junior Jake Kramer, junior Ryan Firmstone or junior Brandon Coughlin. Senior Christian Zilli mainly has been the Spartans’ closer.

Coughlin has been one of the Spartans’ leading hitters. He has a .361 average with 21 RBIs. Zilli is batting .319 with 24 RBIs and 10 doubles, and Fox is hitting .333 with 22 runs scored and 17 RBIs.

Hempfield’s team batting average is .292.

“We have to find ways to get on base and get people in,” Buzzard said. “That’s what we’ve been working on since the championship game.”

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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