South Park baseball team contending again
Steve Bucci recognized the school, the baseball field and the South Park uniforms, but it sure didn't feel like the program he'd left behind.
Much changed in his four years away.
“It was completely different,” Bucci said. “The excitement was out of the program. It didn't seem like anybody really cared.”
Eighteen months later, there's excitement again.
In the second year of his second stint as South Park's coach, Bucci has the Eagles pointed toward the playoffs.
“It seems like it has awoken the town,” said Bucci, who lives in South Park and hears kind words during his visits to CoGo's. “That's the fun part of it.”
In seven years, Bucci had shaped South Park baseball into one of the WPIAL's better Class AAA programs before leaving in 2006 for another coaching job. Lured away by Class AAAA baseball, Bucci won a state title at Canon-McMillan and spent one year at Bethel Park but ultimately returned in 2011.
South Park hasn't had a winning season since Bucci left, but that streak will end this year. The Eagles are 14-4 with a 9-3 section record that has them tied atop 3-AAA.
Wednesday's 2-1 victory over Montour secured them a spot in the WPIAL playoffs, their first in six years. South Park is tied with Thomas Jefferson (9-3, 12-4). Both are a half-game ahead of Chartiers Valley (8-3, 13-4), which faces South Park tonight.
“We haven't had this experience in how many years?” said junior pitcher Nick Yobbi, who earned the win over Montour. “Six years? That's tough. It would be nice to finally get the winning streak going.”
He's one of the eight players who were starters a year ago, including junior Carter Groate, who began the week batting .500 (23 for 46). The team has just three seniors, including Dan Jena (24 for 53, .453) and Anthony Monaco (19 for 52, .365), but this success should continue.
But when Bucci first rejoined the program, he found it wasn't in the shape he remembered. From 2000-06, the Eagles were 103-50 under Bucci, had four years with at least 16 wins and reached the WPIAL championship game in 2002.
Yet during his four-year absence, South Park finished 6-10, 7-13, 9-9 and 6-12. And Bucci's first year back wasn't good, either. The team was 8-10 in 2011, finished tied for sixth in the eight-team section and missed the playoffs by five games.
“I'd never seen so much individuality in my life,” Bucci said. “I was thinking to myself, the groups I had at South Park lived and breathed (baseball). I was just wondering what the heck happened?”
Bucci and his assistants were determined to “change the team's mentality,” while also focusing on teaching the basics. There were practices devoted to routine plays like hitting the cutoff, Bucci said, because “we had to assume that these kids knew absolutely nothing. That's how far behind we were.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5666.