Senior Legion season shows progress, promise for Jeannette

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The playoff loss from earlier this month still stings, but now that some time has passed, Jeannette senior American Legion baseball coach Jules Ponterio has a bit more perspective.

“We took the next step,” he said.

Jeannette concluded its best season in more than a decade by going 8-9 in the regular season, finishing tied for third in the District 31 Northern Division (just one win away from a division title), making it to the playoffs and coming up just short of moving on to round two.

It was just three years ago, during the 2010 season, when the senior Legion program folded midway through the campaign due to a lack of funding and interest. At the time, the future of Jeanette American Legion baseball was in doubt and many wondered if the program would continue in any way.

But American Legion Post 344 stepped up to reinvigorate the program. Ponterio, a veteran baseball and softball coach, was brought in to be the manager and head coach, and he began the process of building a team with a using a different approach.

After a 4-13 record in 2011 and a 3-16-1 record in 2012, this year's season gave the community and Post 344 something to celebrate.

However, Ponterio explained that being happy with the accomplishment is not being satisfied.

“The next step is going to be getting back to the playoffs and going farther,” he said. “You want to win a championship. That's why you are in this thing. We want to develop a program here, not a team who made the playoffs one year.”

Ponterio opened the door to players from Jeannette and the surrounding communities. Not only were the players on this year talented, they also had a team-first attitude that created deep camaraderie and strong leadership, which fostered a culture of winning, said Ponterio.

“The camaraderie was unbelievable,” he said. “These kids got along. There was no ‘me' on this team. These kids from all these different school districts got along.”

Players on the squad point to the veteran leaders on the roster who then got the younger players to “buy in.”

“I feel like we've grown a lot as a team,” said Tyler Stevenson, who has been on the team since Ponterio took over.

“When I first came here, there was no leadership. We didn't play together as a team. Everyone was trying to go out and be an all-star I guess, instead of playing as a team. But the more we've gotten comfortable with coach, the more we've trusted him, the more success we've had.”

The result was a group that made baseball a priority.

“The kids on this Legion team, it's just different,” said pitcher Garrett Elliott. “The difference is the will to play baseball. It's just a different atmosphere this year.”

Jeannette will lose six players from this year's squad in Brady Cameron, Dom Disso, Elliott, Ricky DeMark, Brandon Gernhardt and Stevenson. Ponterio said they will be a tough group to replace.

“I'm going to miss them. It took us three years to get to this point,” he said. “When that last game was over, I talked to these kids and told them how proud I was of them. I told them how much I was going to miss them and they had their heads down and couldn't look up at me.

“That's the kind of kids we had this year. They didn't want to quit.”

In order to take that next step, Ponterio will have to replenish his roster.

“I'm hoping some kids from the junior Legion team step up and play for us,” he said. “We have some holes to fill, and one way or another, we'll find ways to fill those holes.”

Brian Knavish is a contributing writer.

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