QV to lean on 'dream outfield'; Sewickley returns 3 all-section players
Few WPIAL baseball programs in recent memory have churned out wins as consistently as Quaker Valley. The Quakers have reached the PIAA playoffs each of the past four seasons, while tallying a combined 66-13 record.
Dave Bogats has been a key part of that sustained success, first as an assistant from 2012-14 and then as the team's head coach last season, when Quaker Valley went 13-4 while splitting a section title with Avonworth.
As the Quakers shift to a new section in 2017, they must fill the void left by three graduating seniors: Robert Kolessar, John Medich and Peyton Russoniello. Medich, who paced the team's offense while also starring on the mound, is playing at Rhodes College. Russoniello, the team captain and an all-section honoree, is scooping up grounders at Case Western Reserve.
“I knew those three for a long time,” Bogats said. “They were strong leaders who demonstrated character and class, and understood what it takes to win.”
Bogats believes their strong example rubbed off on younger players who are primed to take the leadership mantle. For Quaker Valley, it starts with their own “dream outfield.” Not Polanco, Marte and McCutchen, but rather Nic Saladino in left, Collin Jackovic in center, and Joey Hess in right.
“All of those guys are three-year starters, and they're tremendous defensively,” Bogats said. “They could play any outfield spot. Collin was all-section last year and scored more than 20 runs while batting leadoff. Joey and Nick can also pitch. Whenever we need a timely hit, they come through.”
The Quakers also will get a boost from the return of infielder/pitcher Jack Hendricks, an Ursinus College recruit who missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. Yender Almanzar has a quick bat and smooth hands in the infield, too.
Several underclassmen could play prominent roles. Sophomore left-handers Christian Johnson and Jake Commens will soak up some of the innings left open by Medich's graduation.
Three-sport standout Ethan Moore will be back after missing last season with a football-related injury. Michael Tanabe, who stepped in last year when Hendricks went down, brings versatility to the infield.
Fans won't have to worry about Quaker Valley, now competing in Section 2-4A, getting complacent.
“From top to bottom, it's going to be one of the toughest sections,” Bogats said. “Ambridge, Beaver, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Hopewell, New Castle, South Fayette. We're familiar with Beaver from the 2013 WPIAL title game (Quaker Valley's only defeat that season). There won't be any easy games. We're strong defensively and have good pitching depth, and we play good fundamental baseball. It's going to come down to how well we do at the plate. Pitching and defense will keep us in games. But we need quality, timely hitting to reach the next level.”
The Panthers look to extend their four-year WPIAL playoff streak under new coach Andrew Petruska, who takes over for Andrew Heck (now coaching at North Allegheny, while still playing ball for the Washington Wild Things in the Frontier League). A Central Catholic graduate who played shortstop for Clarion, Petruska landed the job at Sewickley Academy after serving as an assistant at Thomas Jefferson last year.
Sewickley Academy is led by a trio of all-section seniors: outfielder Tommy Lasorda, catcher Derrick Littlefield and pitcher/infielder Joey Straka. The great nephew of the Los Angeles Dodgers legend of the same name, Lasorda is a speedy center fielder. Littlefield and Straka form one of the strongest batteries in Section 3-A. Littlefield, the son of former Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, is an ultra-athletic backstop who batted .488 last season. A 6-foot-2 right-hander, Straka was part of a combined no-hitter in 2015 and struck out more than a batter per inning while posting a 1.58 ERA in 2016.
“Tommy is a multi-sport athlete (a 2016 all-section forward in soccer) and a great communicator,” Petruska said. “Derrick loves learning about the game and is always working to get better. He enjoys teaching the younger players and even helps out with the softball team. He's not only a great athlete, but also a future coach. Joey never takes a day off as a three-sport athlete (he's captain of the hockey team as a defenseman, and was part of the Panthers' PIAA runner-up golf team) and takes on new challenges. They're special.”
The Panthers must try to replace the production of John Nagel, who tied Littlefield for the team batting title. Among those up to the challenge is John DelVecchio, a sophomore infielder who tallied timely hits for a Sewickley Academy club that went 8-4 last year (7-3 in the section) while advancing to the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals.
“John will be a key contributor. He'll play shortstop when Joey is on the mound, and then the two will flip,” Petruska said. “John will be our guy over the next few years and can become something special because he's coachable and wants to learn from our senior leaders.”
Utility players Ryan Brown and Brennan Doyle, first baseman Declan Hickton and outfielder Mason Young also provide senior leadership.
Undergraduate contributors include sophomores Cole Karlik, a utility man, as well as outfielders Jackson Paul and Cooper White.
Freshman catcher/pitcher Dimitri Gary has high potential, and he'll look to carve out role along with second baseman Dev Zeleznik.
“We're a younger team, and we need to learn to communicate more effectively,” Petruska said. “We come to practice every day wanting to learn something new, both the players and the coaches. We want to win, and have fun.”
David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.