Valley baseball builds momentum with experienced lineup

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Friday, April 2, 2021 | 6:25 PM


When looking for silver linings in what was an otherwise frustrating turn of events with the sudden cancellation of high school sports last spring, Valley baseball coach Jim Basilone knew that he would have nine players returning with varsity experience gained in either 2018 or ’19.

Now, with the 2021 season in full swing, he is seeing that experience show itself on the mound, at the plate and on defense as the group takes advantage of continuity.

Basilone hopes his team, off to a 3-1 start, can keep up the momentum as the calendar turns to April and it faces the meat of the Section 3-3A slate and other meaningful WPIAL matchups.

“We are fortunate enough to have players come back who played a lot of innings as sophomores and freshmen,” Basilone said. “A lot of teams were less certain coming into this season because they had graduated a lot of seniors the past two years. With the mix of sophomores and freshman who have come back or come up, they are pretty excited for what they can do.”

Starters and those back with playing experience from 2019 and earlier are seniors John Luke Bailey (pitcher/infield), Shane Demharter (pitcher/infield/outfield), Evan Henry (outfield/first base), Justin Hooper (infield/outfield), Javon Keys (outfield/first base) and Cayden Quinn (pitcher/catcher/outfield); along with juniors Ben Aftanas (pitcher/infield), Isaac Kelley (first base/outfield) and Matteo Vergerio (pitcher/catcher/infield).

“This group of guys has that chemistry because we’ve played together for so long,” Demharter said. “Everyone is grateful to be back playing as a team, and we are confident we can challenge for the section (title) and go far in the playoffs. That’s what we’ve been waiting for, especially the seniors.”

Others who have earned starting opportunities so far this season include junior Luke Caprino (second base) and freshman Jacob Staraniec (center field).

Basilone said his team played well despite an 8-1 loss to Highlands in the opener March 26. The Golden Rams scored six runs in the second inning.

“We wanted to see what we needed to work on and where we were at,” Basilone said. “We still hadn’t found all of our starters at that point. We wanted to see how our pitchers would fare against a strong lineup. We had just that one bad inning where we had a few errors, team-wise. You take away that one inning and it’s probably a 2-1 game. I was pleased with our play outside of that one inning.”

Valley returned to the field earlier this week and defeated Springdale, 14-0, and swept a doubleheader from Leechburg, 5-0 and 10-0.

“We knew that we would be able to correct some things coming out of the Highlands game in terms of our fundamentals and come back and take care of business,” Basilone said.

The pitching staff, Basilone said, gave an early display of its ability as Aftanas threw a one-hitter against Springdale. Bailey limited Leechburg in Game 1 of the doubleheader, striking out 13, and freshman Tyler Danko threw a no-hitter with 10 strikeouts in Game 2.

“I wasn’t surprised how cool, calm and collected Tyler was,” Basilone said. “He went out there and didn’t show any jitters. He just does what he needs to do to get it done. The defense behind him helped him throw effectively, too.”

Demharter, Basilone said, also is at the top of the rotation, with Quinn, Staraniec and fellow freshman Wesley Schrock in the pitching-staff mix.

When he’s not pitching, Quinn will be behind the plate helping direct the defense.

“The interesting thing for me and the other members of the coaching staff will be how we are able to maneuver the defensive lineup when these guys are pitching,” Basilone said.

Valley, 5-8 overall and 4-8 (fifth place) in section play two years ago against the likes of Deer Lakes, Freeport and Burrell, returns to action Tuesday and Wednesday with a home-and-home section series against Derry.

The Trojans also are seeking a section title with 10 seniors and eight returning lettermen along with six juniors on a 17-player varsity roster.

Derry and Mt. Pleasant made the move down from Class 4A, and Deer Lakes and East Allegheny are familiar to the Vikings from recent section competition.

Ligonier Valley is making its WPIAL debut this spring.

“We are looking to compete and be mentally stronger than we’ve ever been in the past to be able to take care of business this year,” Basilone said.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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