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Greensburg area AAABA players excited to have another chance

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Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Rules changes have been hard to come by on arguably baseball's biggest amateur stage.

Since the All-American Amateur Baseball Association began in 1945 in Johnstown, the 20-year-old age limit has been constant. Starting next season, though, the AAABA has voted to increase its age limit to 22.

“It's going to be interesting,” said Nate Campbell, the Latrobe High product who won the Johnstown AAABA League regular-season MVP and batting title this season. “I like it. It's going to come across as more of a college league.”

For 20-year-old players like Campbell, a center fielder who will be a junior at Division III Capital (Ohio), and Nate Sphon, a left-handed pitcher from Greensburg Salem who will be a redshirt sophomore at NAIA Point Park, it means at least one more opportunity to play in the AAABA Tournament.

Both were among a sizeable representation of players with Westmoreland County ties to appear last week in the tournament, where many future major leaguers perform.

New Brunswick (N.J.) won its first AAABA title by beating Cleveland, 5-2, in the double-elimination event's championship game Saturday.

Meanwhile, the thrill of pitching in front of thousands of fans never will be lost for Sphon. The starter in Johnstown Berkley Hills Renegades' first game at the AAABA Tournament, Sphon said he couldn't remember a time quite like it.

“Opening night was a great opportunity,” said Sphon, who got a no-decision in Berkley Hills' 4-3 loss to Philadelphia. “It's not something that everyone gets to do. My adrenaline was really pumping.”

Sphon, the Greensburg Salem High product, was prepared. He was 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 12 appearances for Point Park last season. The Pioneers were ranked No. 6 and made an appearance in the NAIA World Series.

Sphon, who was 5-1 during the Johnstown AAABA League regular season, pitched a career-high 10 innings and struck out 13 in a win over the city's other national tournament qualifier, Martella's Pharmacy, in the first game of the league's championship series.

“I just want to get another chance to win the (national) tournament,” Sphon said. “Next year, I'll get a chance to do it again.”

Campbell, who led the Johnstown AAABA League in batting with a .421 average after his sophomore season at Capital was cut short by an elbow injury, expressed disappointment in Berkley Hills' early exit — the team was 0-2 — after he and Sphon played for the first time in the tournament last year and experienced success.

Campbell's team a year ago posted a 3-2 mark in the national tournament, while Sphon, who was added to a roster as a pick-up player, played on a team that was 2-2.

“We lost two games on a big stage,” Campbell said, “but it doesn't define our season by any stretch. It's just a shame it ended that way, but every team was a tough draw.”

Campbell finished second in RBI in the Johnstown AAABA League during the regular season with 32 behind Berkley Hills' Johnny Jones, a pitcher/third baseman from Ligonier Valley High and Westminster (Pa.) who had 40.

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