With Heilman on hill, Freeport has shot at another special season

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 | 6:01 PM

Last season, Freeport baseball coach Ed Carr watched a team that consisted mainly of juniors grow up on the fly and exceed expectations.

Led by Mercyhurst recruit Jarrett Heilman’s outstanding year on the mound, the Yellowjackets won a section title, made the WPIAL semifinals and qualified for the PIAA playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

With the majority of the team returning, they’re hoping for a pretty good encore.

“We were really young last year and everything was ahead of schedule from that standpoint,” Carr said. “The kids really grew up a lot. I think now they want more.”

Heilman, who is the reigning Valley News Dispatch baseball player of the year, put up eye-popping numbers, going 9-2 with a 0.67 ERA and 107 strikeouts to seven walks in 73 innings.

He led the Yellowjackets to a pair of 1-0 wins in the WPIAL playoffs, including one in the consolation game against Keystone Oaks that clinched a state playoff berth.

“Last year was a historical year. You’re not going to see that very often,” Carr said. “It’s going to be hard to even duplicate it this year. I told him and I told the kids that he could be a better pitcher this year and his stats could get worse.

“We have to understand that we have to carry him sometimes too. Hopefully this year we will grow up a little bit more offensively, and I think we will. Our guys are bigger and stronger, and they have a better understanding of hitting from their junior to senior year.”

Heilman said he will keep listening to the children’s song “Baby Shark” as part of his pregame routine this year.

“I’ll keep that going for my entire school ball career,” Heilman said. “Don’t mess with something that isn’t broken.”

He’ll also continue working with his batterymate Garret Ben, who has been his catcher since eighth grade.

Ben has seen Heilman transform into a dominant pitcher.

“He has the velocity, which really helps at this age, but he also has great movement on his pitches that gets people chasing,” Ben said. “He’s been able to build off that, and it’s led to a lot of success over the years.”

Freeport has some pitching depth behind Heilman with Matt Grove, Joseph Hotalksi, Bradyn Clark, Matt Mitchell, Aidan Skradski, who returns after not playing last year, and Dom Kern.

Carr said all of them are in the mix to be the No. 2 starter.

Offensively, the Yellowjackets are led by third basemen Zachary Allen, who had a team-best .471 batting average a season ago, and first basemen Matt Mitchell.

The Yellowjackets are a close-knit group. An example is their team-wide Snapchat group chat they have called “The Avengers,” which Heilman said is a good source for humor.

“No matter what’s going on in the day, if you want a good smile, you just open up that chat,” he said. “Your name is sure to be brought up in a conversation, probably insulting you, but in a funny way where you can get a good laugh out of it.”

Freeport earned the Section 1-3A title with a walk-off win over Deer Lakes in the final game of the season. Steel Valley and Burrell also made the playoffs. Valley, South Allegheny and East Allegheny complete the section.

After last season’s success, Freeport is hopeful it can have another historic spring.

“I think the first goal is always to be a playoff team,” Carr said. “In the back of your mind, you don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but you want to defend your section title.

“Honestly we made it close to the WPIAL championship game, so that’s probably goal No. 3. But that’s our goals every year: playoffs, section, WPIAL. That’s what we’re going to try to do, but it starts with winning the next game on the schedule.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer


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