Trib HSSN baseball team of the week for April 9, 2023

Sunday, April 9, 2023 | 8:35 PM

The Mars baseball program has proven itself as a perennial contender in WPIAL Class 5A.

In the last five seasons, the Fightin’ Planets lost in the 2017 and 2018 district championship game to Latrobe and North Hills, respectively. They lost in the 2019 semifinals, the 2021 quarterfinals and were upset in the first round last spring by Chartiers Valley after winning the Section 2-5A title.

After years of being close, Mars would love to break through.

“The playoff curse has been in our program a little too long,” Mars coach Jason Thompson said. “We’ve never been able to take home a WPIAL championship. We typically don’t do well in the playoffs, and that is something we as a program have been talking about and that’s the emphasis that we put into our nonsection games as well as a competitive section.

“We usually have a pretty good regular season, but we need to do better in the postseason.”

While we won’t know the Fightin’ Planets’ postseason fate for another month and a half, they are off and running toward another successful regular season.

Mars was 4-2 heading into their first Section 3-5A series last week against defending champion West Allegheny.

On Monday, the teams met at Donaldson Elementary School field in Oakdale. In a pitchers’ duel, RBIs by senior Benji Astbury and sophomore Luke Goodworth in the second inning were enough to propel the Fightin’ Planets to a 2-1 win.

Junior Jackson Fox was the winning pitcher, limiting the Indians to one earned run on two hits with five strikeouts in a complete game.

“We have a guy who pitches on Monday and another guy on Tuesday, and Jackson Fox had always been the next guy up,” Thompson said. “He pitched one heck of a game. He threw tons and tons of strikes, was very efficient and didn’t allow hardly any free passes. The defense made a lot of good plays behind him.”

Playing West Allegheny at home Tuesday, Mars’ offense came to life.

The Fightin’ Planets put up crooked numbers in the second (2 runs), fourth (4) and sixth (3) innings. Senior Chase Winstead had two hits and three RBIs, junior Jacob Maple had two hits and two RBIs and Astbury had a hit and three RBIs in Mars’ 9-3 victory.

“I think it was a testament to our players,” Thompson said. “It was an emotional first game, and as a coach, you are hoping there’s no letdown. West Allegheny is going to bring their best every time, and we have to match that. We did a little better when we had opportunities with two outs in scoring some runs. I’m proud of all by boys and how they played.

Junior Charlie Bickel was the winning pitcher, throwing 4 1/3 innings, walking two and striking out five.

Thompson credits the team’s trip to the Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the start of the season for the good start.

“I was skeptical about how much time, money and effort that really needs to go into that, until we came back and you compare a team that wasn’t able to go down to a team that was. The difference is the level the players are committed to each other. What you see is freshmen and sophomores, there isn’t that wall with the older guys. The grade separation really diminishes after a trip like that.”

Next up for Mars in the section series is a battle for first place with the team that beat them in the 2018 5A classic, North Hills (2-0, 6-1).

The Fightin’ Planets visit the Indians on Tuesday and host North Hills on Wednesday.

“I see a team that has the potential to put up a massive, massive inning,” Thompson said of the Indians. “That’s a team that over 14 innings of two days, they are going to bring you their best and a lot of energy. We just have to match that and exceed that.”

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