High school baseball talent takes off in Western Pennsylvania
Pine-Richland's Zac Laneve and Connellsville's Johnny Leonard believe there are misconceptions about baseball players from cold-weather states.
Yes, it snows. But, no, they don't spend all winter just watching it fall.
"The only thing that really separates the kids in the north from the south is the warm weather," Leonard said. "People don't realize we have the same ability, but they get more of the (college) looks because people think they're always outside. It's not like we're doing nothing during the winter. We're inside working on our games."
The two highly recruited shortstops hope to change those misconceptions when they move south later this year to play college baseball in North Carolina — Laneve at UNC, Leonard at N.C. State. They're among the latest proof that the WPIAL produces quality players, despite the snowy weather and long winters.
"I'm definitely proud to be one of the guys who's bringing a name to Western Pennsylvania baseball," Laneve said.
More than 15 seniors from this year's class have received Division I baseball scholarships, a number coaches said has grown in recent decades. And some of these players are headed to conferences known for baseball.
Laneve's destination, North Carolina, was ranked No. 6 in USA Today's latest poll. Coastal Carolina, ranked highly last season, signed North Allegheny pitcher Tanner Wilt.
"I think baseball in Western Pennsylvania is underrated," North Allegheny coach Andy Maddix said. "It's known as a football area, but we send a lot to (college baseball) programs. There are a lot of good players in (the WPIAL)."
The number of scholarships is noteworthy, moving baseball behind only football in terms of college offers for WPIAL athletes.
» Four WPIAL seniors are headed to Pitt: Peters Township's Justin Bianco, Hopewell's Matt Rubino, Ford City's Dylan Wolsonovich and Burrell's Dave Yakopec.
» North Hills outfielder Taylor Schmidt signed with Big East opponent Cincinnati. Also headed to Ohio schools are Norwin's Jason Shirley (Youngstown State), Serra Catholic's Chris Miller (Akron) and North Allegheny teammates Cody Gaertner and Brice Nikithser (Ohio).
» Moon's Brett Hoffman, traveling far from home, signed with Southeastern Louisiana, a member of the Southland Conference.
"The quality of baseball around here is pretty darn good," Pine-Richland coach Kurt Wolfe said. "Finally, a lot of the colleges and scouts are starting to see that."
Blackhawk coach Bob Amalia credits the growth in area showcases, including an underclassman combine held each June in connection with the WPIAL all-star games. West Penn Baseball Prospectus runs the showcase event for juniors.
"We get 100 college coaches down there watching," Amalia said. "That really gets their foot in the door."
To land scholarships in North Carolina, Laneve and Leonard headed south to be noticed. Leonard played last fall at the WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Fla., an elite all-star tournament.
"They're able to see you go up against some of the best players in the country," said Leonard, whose brother Joe starred at Pitt and was drafted last year in the third round by the Atlanta Braves. "It proves a lot when you're successful."
During the past two summers, Laneve played four all-star tournaments in Georgia and Florida. It was there, he said, that scouts first approached him -- and then followed him back to Pennsylvania.
"The schools down south don't always come up here," he said, "unless they see you basically in their backyard."
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL PREVIEW
Preseason Top 10
1. Peters Township (16-7 last season)
2. North Allegheny (19-6)
3. Pine-Richland (20-4)
4. Norwin (17-5)
5. Penn Hills (13-7)
6. Shaler (13-9)
7. Penn-Trafford (11-10)
8. Upper St. Clair (13-7)
9. Butler (12-8)
10. Mt. Lebanon (7-12)
1: North Allegheny — Ohio recruits Cody Gaertner (C) and Brice Nikithser (OF) could have the Tigers returning to the WPIAL title game. Again in their way will be rival Pine-Richland, which won the 2010 Class AAAA title. Shaler and Butler were playoff teams last year, and Seneca Valley could be much improved.
2: Norwin — Junior catcher Max McDowell, who is being watched by Division I programs Connecticut and Virginia Tech, provides another solid bat (.458) around seniors Jason Shirley and Matt Palo. The Knights' pitching staff has solid depth but lacks the workhorse ace of past years. Hempfield, a contender in 2010, and Penn-Trafford return enough for another solid season.
3: Peters Township — Almost every starter returns from last year's team, which lost to North Allegheny in the semis, including two Division I recruits (Pitt's Justin Bianco and Hartford's Brady Sheetz). The team graduated only two starting fielders. Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, as well as Bethel Park and Baldwin, could contend in what's always a close section.
4: Penn Hills — Senior infielders Walt Hajduk and Shane Healey, both headed to La Roche, return from a lineup that shared this section title last year with Central Catholic.
Players to watch:
Zac LaNeve, sr., SS, Pine-Richland
• North Carolina-bound infielder ranked among WPIAL leaders in runs scored.
Tanner Wilt, sr., P, North Allegheny
• Hard-throwing, right-handed Coastal Carolina recruit will be the Tigers' ace.
Taylor Schmidt, sr., OF, North Hills
• Cincinnati recruit batted .477, but Schmidt also plays outstanding defense.
Jason Shirley, sr., OF/P, Norwin
• This left-hander headed to Youngstown State batted better than .400 and can run.
Justin Bianco, sr., OF, Peters Township
• Left-handed Pitt recruit has a powerful middle-of-the-order bat.
Johnny Leonard, sr., SS, Connellsville
• Leonard, who's headed to N.C. State, could follow his father and brother as MLB draft picks.
Last season: North Allegheny and Pine-Richland met twice in the regular season, and North Allegheny won both. In the playoffs they met twice more, and both went to Pine-Richland, including a 5-2 victory in the WPIAL championship game. When they met again in the PIAA quarters, Pine-Richland won, 9-5. In the semis, Pine-Richland lost to the eventual state champion, West Chester Henderson.
Preseason Top 10
1. Moon (18-6 last season)
2. Elizabeth Forward (21-6)
3. Blackhawk (13-8)
4. Mt. Pleasant (16-6)
5. Trinity (12-6)
6. Montour (18-6)
7. Hampton (10-11)
8. Greensburg Salem (13-6)
9. Thomas Jefferson (12-9)
10. Chartiers Valley (7-11)
1: Moon — The Tigers, who came within a run of winning consecutive WPIAL titles, return some talent from 2010, including standout senior Brett Hoffman. Replacing ace Brad Schnelle will be their biggest challenge in a section that has grown even tougher with the addition of Blackhawk and others. Any of the eight teams could challenge for the playoffs.
2: Elizabeth Forward — Last season's playoff run was fueled in large part by the Warriors' talent-heavy junior class, meaning the success should continue. Mt. Pleasant and Greensburg Salem, both playoff teams a year ago, also should contend.
3: Trinity — Left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Riotto, a sophomore, will spark Trinity, which will try to hold off Montour, among others A year ago, as a freshman starter, Riotto batted .553. Montour also returns a solid core from a team that reached the playoffs
4: Hampton — Gone from Hampton's section are playoff contenders Blackhawk, New Castle and Ambridge, having been replaced during the latest realignment, leaving the Talbots as the likely top dogs.
Players to watch:
Matt Rubino, sr., C/3B, Hopewell
• Pitt recruit starred for the Vikings last season, hitting a home run in WPIAL title game victory.
Brett Hoffman, sr., 3B/SS, Moon
• Strong middle-of-the-order hitter who has played third base and short and will attend Southeastern Louisiana.
Dan Altavilla, sr., P/3B, Elizabeth Forward
• Mercyhurst-bound right-hander carried the Warriors to the PIAA quarterfinals.
Matt Emge, jr., C, Blackhawk
• As a sophomore, Emge earned the attention of many Big East coaches.
Dylan Prutz, sr., 2B, Southmoreland
• Sure-handed infielder also batted .500 (31 of 62) with 22 RBI.
Last season: Hopewell's Scott Dierdorf and Matt Rubino hit home runs at Consol Energy Park to lift the Vikings past Moon, 2-1, in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game. Third-place finisher Elizabeth Forward made the longest PIAA run, reaching the state quarterfinals.
Preseason Top 10
1. Burrell (14-6 last season)
2. Bishop Canevin (12-7)
3. Shady Side Academy (18-3)
4. Waynesburg (11-6)
5. Laurel (15-5)
6. Freedom (13-6)
7. Beaver Falls (19-4)
8. Freeport (15-2)
9. Ford City (9-10)
10. South Fayette (17-2)
1: Bishop Canevin — The Crusaders could stand out in a largely realigned section with the help of three talented seniors: pitcher/outfielder Zach Daley, versatile infielder Mike Bolla and quick outfielder Matt Butter, who has some pop.
2: Waynesburg — This could be a team on the rise, with two all-section juniors poised for big seasons in pitcher Joe Monica (0.54 ERA in 2010) and catcher Steve McCaw, a .300 hitter the past two seasons. The Raiders were second in the section to Washington last year.
3: Burrell — As last year's WPIAL runner-up, the Buccaneers tasted greatness and are hungry for more. Ace pitcher Dave Yakopec will lead a strong staff on the mound, joined by fellow senior Andrew Peck and junior Matt Cercone.
4: Shady Side Academy — The Indians have won this section two years in a row and could make it three with the help of ace pitcher Ben Hartz, who also plays at first and in the outfield. There's also a wealth of experienced seniors and juniors.
5: Laurel — While fellow section member Beaver Falls is the reigning WPIAL champ, the Tigers were hit hard by graduation — which could allow section runner-up Laurel to step in thanks to a solid lineup featuring a mix of young talent and veteran leadership.
Players to watch:
Dave Yakopec, sr., P, Burrell
• A hard-throwing lefty and Pitt recruit, he struck out 76 batters last season.
Dylan Wolsonovich, sr., SS, Ford City
• Wolsonovich, another Pitt-bound senior, batted .443 and scored 26 runs in 2010.
Joe Monica, jr., IF/P, Waynesburg
• Led team last year with .432 average at the plate and 18 RBI, and he struck out 52 in 39 innings pitched.
John Fetchko, sr., P, Freeport
• Strong-armed right-hander.
Matt Zerishnek, jr., OF, Bishop Canevin
• Finished sixth in the WPIAL as a sophomore with .587 average.
Ben Hartz, jr., P, Shady Side Academy
• Throws in the mid-80s and went 7-1 in 2010, along with batting .500.
Last season: Senior-laden Beaver Falls won its first WPIAL baseball title since 1975 with a 7-0 victory over upstart Burrell. Despite the loss, Burrell was the only WPIAL Class AA team to win a game in the state tournament, though its PIAA stay ended with a nine-inning quarterfinal loss to Mt. Union.
Preseason Top 10
1. Serra Catholic (24-2 last season)
2. Neshannock (17-6)
3. Beth Center (11-6)
4. California (21-4)
5. Vincentian (14-10)
6. Bentworth (17-4)
7. Jefferson-Morgan (11-7)
8. Cornell (10-7)
9. Leechburg (8-6)
10. Carmichaels (7-13)
1: Beth-Center — After going unbeaten in section play a year ago, experienced Beth-Center looks capable of repeating the feat — though California will challenge. Pitchers Mike Bodnar and Ryan Jones will make the Bulldogs a force, and fellow seniors Matt Sabatini, Austin Smith, A.J. Tworzydlo should provide ample offense.
2: Serra Catholic — Last year's WPIAL champs and PIAA runner-ups, the Eagles look to be the team to beat in Class A again. All-state catcher and Akron-bound senior Chris Miller and ace pitcher Alain Girman give the Eagles one of the best batteries in the WPIAL.
3: Neshannock — The Lancers are coming off of a WPIAL runner-up finish and bring back enough talent to make another run. Junior shortstop John Sansone is a good fielder and can hit for power, and senior Chris Tsangaris batted .451 in 2010.
4: Vincentian — Senior pitcher/shortstop Adam Dian brings experience and multiple tools to the table for a team that reached the WPIAL semifinals last year. Consistent right-hander Alex Franc also buoys a staff that will have to contend with a host of competitors in the section.
Players to watch:
Chris Miller, sr., C, Serra Catholic
• An Akron recruit, he batted a team-high .579, hit five home runs and drove in 33 runs last year.
Alain Girman, jr., P, Serra Catholic
• Struck out 102 batters and had a 0.95 ERA in 2010, can throw in the high 80s and is a consistent plate presence (.422).
Adam Dian, sr., P/SS, Vincentian
• Dian, a versatile talent and Temple recruit, has a strong arm on the mound and tallied 23 RBI last season.
Matt Sabatini, sr., C/P, Beth-Center
• An all-section performer who hit .446 in 2010; also struck out 44 in 25 2/3 innings.
Tyler Delval, jr., P/IF, Bentworth
• This big bat had eight home runs and 32 RBI as a sophomore, along with batting .525.
Last season: Serra Catholic didn't lose a game against Class A competition until the state championship. That stretch included a 7-3 victory over Neshannock, earning the Eagles a second consecutive WPIAL title. But in the PIAA final, Christopher Dock defeated Serra Catholic, 4-3. It was Serra's second consecutive loss in the state title game.
1. Allderdice (12-6 last season)
2. Brashear (12-3)
3. Schenley (10-5)
Players to watch
Zach Gray, sr., 2B, Allderdice
• Gray led the Dragons with a .489 average and 24 runs scored.
Dante Yobbi, sr., SS/3B, Allderdice
• Solid-hitting infielder (24 RBI) was unbeaten as a junior pitcher (4-0).
Adam Lynch, jr., OF, Brashear
• Lynch batted .511 as a sophomore, helping Brashear reach City League title game
Allderdice — The Dragons' best starters (Mike Pfleger, Dante Yobbi and Blaise Galewski) return from last season's team, which won the City League title. That was the third consecutive title for Allderdice.Additional Information:
More than 15 WPIAL seniors have signed or verbally committed to Division I baseball programs:
Justin Bianco, Peters Township • Pitt
Grant Brown, Bethel Park • George Washington
Adam Dian, Vincentian • Temple
Cody Gaertner, North Allegheny ? Ohio
Brett Hoffman, Moon • Southeastern Louisiana
Zac Laneve, Pine-Richland • North Carolina
Johnny Leonard, Connellsville • N.C. State
Chris Miller, Serra Catholic ? Akron
Brice Nikithser, North Allegheny ? Ohio
Matt Rubino, Hopewell • Pitt
Taylor Schmidt, North Hills ? Cincinnati
Brady Sheetz, Peters Township ? Hartford
Jason Shirley, Norwin ? Youngstown State
Tanner Wilt, North Allegheny ? Coastal Carolina
Dylan Wolsonovich, Ford City ? Pitt
Dave Yakopec, Burrell • Pitt
Source: West Penn Baseball Prospectus