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Leechburg baseball team on the defensive

| Sunday, March 19, 2017, 7:57 p.m.

As the Leechburg baseball team pushes to improve on last year's 3-7 record in section play and 3-14 overall mark, the remedy is evident.

The Blue Devils have to improve defensively and stop giving teams extra outs.

“Last year, we gave teams too many multiple four-, five-, six-out innings,” said first-year coach Ed Kriger, a longtime assistant with the program. “We probably could have made the playoffs had we not committed team errors, defensively.”

Leechburg finished two games out of a playoff spot. One game that sticks out was April 25 against Springdale.

The Blue Devils led 6-0, but a variety of miscues resulted in a 9-6 loss that resulted in a two-game swing in the section standings.

“In baseball, you know you have to be strong up the middle,” Kriger said. “I think Cory Nulph will do a good job in center field. I think who I interchange at short and second will be solid. We do have to clean up the defense.”

Leechburg has been practicing rundowns and other fundamentals indoors.

Last year's coach, Drew Martin, moved on to Burrell.

“When Drew left to go to Burrell, I swore to these guys that if we would improve, I know we would surpass last year's victories,” Kriger said. “Defense is half of it. We have to have the mindset — 21 outs or less.”

“Mr. Kriger is really stressing defense,” Nulph said. “We're just going to worry about defense, 21 outs. That's our biggest concern right now.”

Leechburg's top pitcher looks to be junior Corey Kerecz. Last year's top pitcher, Jared Baker, graduated.

“Corey will probably be our first pitcher on the depth chart,” Kriger said. “He can also play the middle infield and is a team captain. Cory Nulph is another captain and multisport star. He's a very good hitter from last year, good speed, good base-stealer, very headsy player.”

Said Kerecz: “My expectations are definitely playoffs. It would be nice to get in and get a decent seed.”

Another multisport athlete, junior Christian Hack, will anchor the middle infield.

Hack will spend time on the mound, along with fellow junior Chris Slifer, who pitched 19 innings last season.

Mario Leonard will pitch and play outfield.

Another goal of Kriger's is to have batters put the ball in play more often.

“Our team batting average was not too high,” Kriger said. “We had too many strikeouts last year against some pitching that to me was inferior. I'm preaching discipline and knowing the strike zone. I'm a firm believer in putting pressure on the pitcher and the defense.”

If Leechburg is to make any move toward its first section title since 2003, the Blue Devils must get past last year's returning state champion, Vincentian Academy.

Perennial playoff contender Springdale is back. St. Joseph, Eden Christian and Union also will be part of a geographically vast Class 1A Section 1.

“You have to start with Vincentian,” Kriger said. “They lost one Fedko brother, but they have another one back. They are both outstanding athletes. They are the odds-on favorite in the section with the returning players they have back.”

Riverview and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic moved out of the section.

The Blue Devils will be fielding a younger team, with only four seniors. However, there will be enough underclassmen for a junior varsity squad.

Leechburg will start the season with a nonsection game March 29 at Freeport and open section play April 7 at Vincentian.

George Guido is a freelance writer.

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