Tuesday, June 04, 2019 - Updated: 3:35 pm
Western Pennsylvania is becoming a hotbed of baseball talent, and seven local Catholic schools have teams competing at the highest level. Bishop Canevin, Quigley Catholic, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Serra Catholic, Seton LaSalle, St. Joseph and Vincentian Academy all qualified for the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League baseball tournament.
Serra and Seton LaSalle faced off in the Class 2A championship game May 29 at Wild Things Park in Washington, while Quigley played Vincentian for third place in 1A at Washington and Jefferson College. All seven teams have lived out their postseason dreams this season, but no Catholic program has been as successful as Vincentian in recent years.
The Royals have won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship two out of the last three years. Last year, Vincentian won three-straight playoff games by 10 runs or more before knocking off Southern Fulton for the title. In 2016, the Royals beat Meyersdale for their first-ever state championship.
This season, Vincentian rallied to an 11-0 start in sectional play. For the sixth-straight year, the team took part in a spring training session in Vero Beach, Florida, playing teams from Ohio and New York.
“It’s a great opportunity to see how we stack up against top teams from different parts of the country,” said Vincentian coach Brad Bestic, a 2007 graduate of the McCandless Township school. “It also gives our players a chance to get to know each other better and loosen up before we come back to Pittsburgh for our league and section games.”
Along with the players being close to each other, the coaching staff has been working together for many years, too. Bestic is joined by classmate and former teammate Chuck Rhoades and 2010 Vincentian graduate Ross Cortese. Coach Alex Valadja is a North Catholic graduate and former Division I pitcher at James Madison University.
“We’ve created an exciting and fun atmosphere,” said Bestic, who also serves as the school’s assistant athletic director. “The kids pick each other up and support one another. As coaches who were in their place not too long ago, we are able to lead by example.”
The team’s six seniors are Vincenzo Battaglia, Nate Stover, Dan Morgano, James Lutz, Jake Stotsky and Andrew McBriar. Recent graduates, and brothers, Kyler and Christian Fedko are now teammates on the University of Connecticut baseball team. Bestic said nearly 20 former Royals have gone on to play baseball collegiately.
There are other locals who have the skills to play at the next level.
One of the most talented young players in the region is Serra Catholic’s Mark Black. The junior has already committed to St. John’s University in Queens, New York, but Serra coach Brian Dzurenda said that several major league teams have already had their eye on Black.
“I’ve been coaching baseball for 22 years and he is one of the best I have ever seen,” Dzurenda said. “He’s been an excellent player since the eighth grade. He’s so strong and physical and works so hard on and off the field. He’s a straight-A student who wants to be the best at everything he does.”
The Eagles finished the regular season with a 17-2 record as players combined to hit 17 home runs. Dzurenda credits hitting coach Dennis Stitch for the power surge. Stitch is a former minor league player who trained with former Pittsburgh Pirates Bill Madlock and Willie Stargell.
“We’re a young team with only one senior,” Dzurenda said. “That bodes well for the future.”
Seton LaSalle split the section title with Serra Catholic, so squaring off in the WPIAL 2A title game should come as no surprise. The two teams split their series during the regular season.
“We played the hardest 2A schedule of any team out there,” said Seton LaSalle coach Mike Wagner. “We’ve pushed it to the limits and really pushed our kids. It’s paid off.”
The Rebels boast five pitchers who routinely throw faster than 85 miles per hour, including freshman Drew Lafferty, who has already committed to play at the University of Kentucky. While the Seton LaSalle pitchers are shutting down opposing offenses, their own hitters are putting the ball in play at a record rate. Eight players recorded double-digit RBIs this season, and their team batting average was well above .400.
“Anybody can get a hit at any moment,” said Wagner, whose daughter, 2018 Seton LaSalle graduate Lexi, plays softball for the University of Oregon. “We are really disciplined at the plate and have cut down on our strikeouts. We’ve made tremendous strides throughout the season.”
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart
The OLSH baseball team followed up successful football and basketball seasons by becoming one of the most surprising teams in the area. The Chargers lost their first game of the season, but won 11 straight after that by outscoring opponents, 108-12. The comeback locked them up for the postseason two years after making the WPIAL 2A semifinals.
“This has been a great group of guys coming together all year,” said OLSH coach Phil McCarren, who serves as the school’s theology department chair. “I’m very proud of this team.”
McCarren notched his 150th career victory this season, and the team earned the sectional title. Senior pitcher Jeff Zick was one of the most consistent pitchers in the area, throwing complete games and striking out more than 10 batters per outing.
“We faced some adversity, and our guys never backed down,” McCarren said. “We had a great group of seniors who led the way for our young players.”
First-year coach Bill Varley led Bishop Canevin to a solid season in its first year playing in Class 1A. A six-member senior class on the team helped ease the transition as the Crusaders qualified for the postseason in back-to-back years.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I took the job back in February,” Varley said. “With the help of this senior class, I saw that they had high expectations. We were able to do some good things and hold our own against a tough schedule. Some teams snuck up on us, but we got to see good competition early, which helped us in the long run.”
The Crusaders didn’t let a four-game losing streak midway through the season get them down. They bounced back from that setback with two-straight double-digit victories.
“We finished out strong and got our heads back in the game,” Varley said.
One of the standouts was pitcher and third baseman Josh Gyms, with a physical and commanding presence. He had good speed on his pitches and was a power threat at the plate.
The best word coach Kip Richeal uses to describe his Quigley Catholic baseball team is brotherhood. The 19 boys on the roster play for each other, whether the Spartans find themselves up by several runs or trailing in a close game.
“They love challenges,” Richeal said. “They aren’t a group that backs down from anything. They’re good kids who listen and buy into what the coaches tell them. They know how to act and handle themselves. Above all, they have respect for themselves and respect for the game of baseball.”
Richeal was a well-known PONY League coach for 30 years before taking the high school coaching job three years ago.
Four current Spartans were former PONY players under Richeal. Quigley Catholic had two seniors this season as the team posted 13 victories.
“Every year has been great,” Richeal said. “I love our team unity, and I like where this team is headed in the future.”
The St. Joseph baseball team qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2000.
“It’s easy to say that our goal this season was to make the playoffs,” said St. Joseph coach Kurt Krebs. “But we had more specific goals that were keys to us getting there.”
Those steps to making the WPIAL Class 1A tournament included getting offensive contributions throughout the lineup, throwing effective pitches so starting pitchers could work deeper into games and playing top-notch defense. Krebs feels that the Spartans completed that checklist and were rewarded with a coveted spot in the playoffs.
“Tyler Wood, Dom Ferrante and Hayden Mallin are the captains and were consistent for us all season long,” Krebs said. “Freshmen have contributed throughout the year when called upon to fill in for injured players.”
Depth is key for any team, but especially a 1A squad. It probably won’t take another 19 years to make it to the WPIAL tournament for St. Joseph.