West Mifflin walks into state semifinals with comeback win over Laurel Highlands

Thursday, June 9, 2022 | 10:04 PM

If West Mifflin baseball coach Jeff Kuzma had his druthers, he’d rather win a game with a walk-off hit instead of a walk-off walk.

But he’s not complaining about how his team defeated Section 3 rival Laurel Highlands, 4-3, in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals Thursday at Latrobe.

Catcher Corey Kuszaj drew a four-pitch walk in the bottom of the seventh inning to score Bert Kovalsky to complete the rally and send the WPIAL champions, now 20-3, to the semifinals against Montour on Monday.

West Mifflin, which trailed 3-0, entered the seventh inning down 3-2.

The inning started with Eric Link getting hit with a pitch. Kovalsky reached on catcher’s interference, which forced Laurel Highlands coach Brad Yohman to switch pitchers, bringing in Braeden O’Brien for Alex McClain.

O’Brien walked Mike Lydon to load the bases, gave up an RBI hit by Ryan Lang and then walked Kuszaj to end the game.

“The game plan all season, specifically in this game, was try to get deep in the count and get deep into their pitching staff,” Kuzma said. “We were lucky enough to keep it close with them having the 3-0 lead. We gave ourselves a chance at the end. It paid dividends.”

Kuzma said the word to his team was “take” and force them to throw strikes.

“We put a lot of pressure on our guys to throw strikes and we put a lot of pressure on the opponent to do the same,” he said. “If they falter at that at all, we’ll take advantage of it. That was our game plan, and we executed later in the game from the fifth inning on.”

Laurel Highlands grabbed a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning on a sacrifice fly by McClain and extended the lead to 3-0 on a two-run home run over the center field fence by Tyler Sankovich.

C.J. Gesk and Sankovich each had two hits for the Mustangs, who ended the season at 17-8.

“I feel terrible for our players,” Yohman said. “We’ve had a heck of a year in general with a lot of transition and change. The team really battled and really worked through a lot of things. This is a heartbreaker. I feel for them.

“I’ll think about this with the coaching staff at some point. It was tough, a 3-0 lead and we’re in a pretty good spot and we knew they’d find a way to respond. It’s hard to keep them off the scoreboard with everything they do. They put pressure on us.”

After the Mustangs took a 3-0 lead, their pitchers struggled to find the strike zone. The Titans only had five hits, but they took advantage of 11 walks, two hit batters and a catcher’s interference.

West Mifflin picked up single tallies in the fifth and sixth innings. The first run came home on a bases-loaded walk and the second on a groundout by Devin Matey. Zane Griffaton had two hits including a double to highlight the sixth inning rally.

Laurel Highlands’ sophomore starter Devon Krivosky kept West Mifflin off the board into the fifth inning. Four-consecutive two-out walks in the fifth inning chased him from the mound.

It was the third time this season that West Mifflin defeated Laurel Highlands.

“Baseball is a funny game,” Kuzma said. “I told them down 3-0 to stay the course. We knew to beat that team three times in a row would be a feat.

“We had to come with a totally different level of baseball, and we were able to do that. Hats off to Section 3 baseball. You saw two teams battle it out for a chance to go to the state semifinals.”

Kuzma said his team must get ready for a rematch with Montour.

“This has been an amazing season,” Kuzma said. “I told my wife after the game, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s something special.’”

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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