For first time in 14 years, Jeannette senior legion in playoffs

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After 14 long years — a time period that included plenty of losing, organizational strain, the near dissolution of the program and a complete rebuilding effort — the Jeannette Senior American Legion baseball team is in the playoffs.

“It does feel good,” said Jules Ponterio, who is in his third season as the team's head coach and the architect of the rebuilding effort.

“It's been a long time coming. I'm thrilled for my kids and for American Legion Post 344 for hanging in there with us. It was hard at first, but we're starting to see the fruits of our work. The kids feel great, but they're not satisfied with getting in. They want to win.”

The players echoed Ponterio's enthusiasm. They're ecstatic about making it to the playoffs but far from satisfied.

“It's great because it's a new experience for us. We've never made it to the playoffs” said catcher Ricky DeMark. “But we definitely want to keep winning. We want to show the rest of the Legion that Jeannette is not an underdog anymore. We can complete with anyone.”

After assembling an 8-9 record in a very tight American Legion District 31, Jeannette finished third in the Northern Division to qualify for the post-season, the first time a Jeannette senior Legion team has been to the playoffs since 1999.

The team was just one win behind Murrysville and Bushy Run (both 9-8) at the top of the division. Jeannette is seeded sixth and battling third-seeded Hempfield East in a best-of-three series this week; as of press time, results of those games were not yet available.

“Ending with an 8-9 record might not sound impressive, but the league was so tight this year,” said Ponterio. “We were one game away from winning the division.”

Ponterio took over a program that failed to complete the season in 2010 due to a lack of funding and interest. A program rising from those depths to a post-season spot in just three years is eye-opening.

“I'm proud of the kids who stuck with us, and now they get to play playoff baseball,” said the coach.

DeMark is one of those players who has been with Ponterio since the beginning. In fact, DeMark was a member of that 2010 squad that folded before the season was complete.

“Honestly, I never lost faith in us,” he said. “I knew we had what it takes to win and make the playoffs. We could never mesh together as a team in the past … this year we meshed, and a soon as we meshed, we really started winning.”

The team wrapped up the regular season with two games on Saturday. Jeannette played a non-division game early in the day and fell to 16-1 Latrobe — which won the District 31 regular season title — by a 12-2 score.

“We had a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning against a very good team,” said Ponterio. “We then hit two batters and walked six and the roof caved in. But you've got to give Latrobe all the credit, they're a loaded team.”

Brady Cameron, who tops the team with a .404 batting average, led the team with three hits. Additionally, Ponterio gave a tip of the cap to Dom Disso, who made his first start on the mound of the season against Latrobe. With a crucial showdown against Kiski later that day, Ponterio wanted to save his regular pitchers, and Disso showed he was a team player, explained the coach.

“He did a nice job, especially those first four innings,” said Ponterio.

On a sweltering day, Jeannette took to the field again Saturday night for a game against division foe Kiski Valley, which was playing its first game of the day.

“The kids were spent after that first game,” said Ponterio. “A lot of people remarked how hot it was.”

Still, with playoff seedings on the line, Jeannette battled from a 3-2 deficit in the seventh inning to take a 4-3 win in eight innings. In the seventh, Adam Shorthouse doubled. He then scored on a Nick Spankler sacrifice fly to tie the game.

Then in the eighth, Disso singled, Shorthouse reached on an error and Garrett Elliott walked. Spankler drew a walk with the bases loaded to plate the winning run.

Rob Duffy started on the mound and threw five strong innings. Elliott relieved him and was lights-out through three, yielding just one hit.

“It was a gut-check win for us,” said Ponterio.

Brian Knavish is a freelance writer.

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