West Mifflin baseball sets playoff goals after missing out past two years

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 1:06 a.m.

Some may interpret veteran West Mifflin baseball coach Jeff Kuzma's bravado as being cocky and his confidence as being egocentric.

And you know what, he really doesn't care.

Though West Mifflin failed to make the playoffs two consecutive seasons and is competing in arguably the best section in Class AAA, Kuzma believes his Titans are a slam dunk to make the playoffs this year, and he's going to tell anybody who is listening just that.

“I told the team, and I will tell you, and it is nothing about being overconfident or egotistical, this is going to be a playoff-bound team,” Kuzma said. “Anything short of the playoffs is a loss for the program. We have the players, the staff and the facilities to make the playoffs, and come early May and if we are not in the playoffs, I will be the first to say how disappointing of a season it was.”

It's easy to see why Kuzma is so optimistic heading into his 13th season as West Mifflin's baseball coach.

• A new multi-million dollar all-turf facility that's allowed the Titans valuable practice time despite the recent inclement weather.

• A week-long trip to Florida next week where they will play four exhibition games before the season starts.

• And, of course, A.J. Olasz.

Olasz is the cause of the majority of the optimism.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound lefty throws three pitches — fastball, curveball, changeup — with the fastball topping out at 88. He's averaging nearly a strikeout per inning over his 12 career high school starts.

All that and he has yet to throw a pitch during his junior year.

“The kid is only a junior,” said Kuzma, who has 111-105 record in 12 years at West Mifflin. “He has accomplished nothing in his junior season, and I told him that. He has to continue to prove that he can be one of the best pitchers in the WPIAL.”

Olasz broke onto the scene as a freshman to become one of West Mifflin's best starters. He struck out 27 in 35 innings and finished with a 3-3 record and 2.60 ERA. He followed that last year with 46 strikeouts in 41 innings — with a 3.07 ERA and 3-3 record.

Even more is expected out of Olasz this season.

“There is a lot of pressure on him and he handles it well,” Kuzma said. “His work ethic has put him on the pedestal of where he is at now. That being said, it is not all about A.J., and he understands that.”

West Mifflin will field an experienced team around Olasz, returning six full- or part-time starters from last year's team that took a nose dive at the end of the year. The Titans lost eight of their final 11 games after starting the season 7-1. West Mifflin finished 10-9 overall and 5-9 in Section 4.

“It was a tough couple of years but we feel that we are on the upswing now,” Kuzma said.

There's been one common denominator during West Mifflin's past two seasons in which it missed the playoffs — poor hitting.

The Titans hit .247 as a team two years ago and .253 last year, with only one starter batting over .300.

Kuzma said those numbers should improve with the addition of their new baseball facility set to open April 1 against Penn-Trafford.

“We are taking advantage of everything to get better,” Kuzma said. “We are taking a few more swings, fielding a few more ground balls. Hopefully, it will pay dividends.”

The Titans return right fielder Jimmy Carassanesi (.292), shortstop Zack Miller (.273), catcher Ryan Kandsberger (.270), second baseman Zach Fodor and third baseman Zach Lapko, along with Olasz (.260).

Throw in Joe Stavor or Mike Peterson at first, Kevin Dulak in center and Jim Weber or Tim Hinkle in left and Kuzma is confident with his lineup.

“We need to stay healthy,” Kuzma said. “We are crossing our fingers and preparing our bodies to stay healthy because if a key guy goes down, it can change the dynamic of our entire season.”

The Titans did lose nearly every pitcher to graduation except for Olasz. Cody Gross will be the No. 2 followed by Zak Salmon, Stavor and Peterson among others.

The Titans will be part of revamped Section 4 this year as Class AAA runner-up Belle Vernon comes over, along with Ringgold and Carrick while Chartiers Valley, Montour, Trinity, Keystone Oaks and McGuffey head out.

“We have the best section in the WPIAL,” Kuzma said. “There is no doubt about it that if you look up and down the WPIAL. Section 4 is the toughest.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib

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