Norwin, P-T, Franklin Regional baseball all chasing repeat playoff spots
A new baseball season begins with one same goal for the local teams — secure a return trip to the playoffs.
The teams at Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional all reached the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs last season, and the coaches from all three teams said that getting back there is the expectation for their teams.
Norwin and Penn-Trafford will compete in Section 2-AAAA, which again will pit them against Albert Gallatin, Connellsville, Hempfield, Latrobe and one new team, Kiski Area, as the Cavaliers replace Laurel Highlands, which dropped to Class AAA.
Franklin Regional's section is now labeled Section 3-AAAA, but it still pits the Panthers against Plum, Gateway and Central Catholic. Gone from the section are Woodland Hills, Penn Hills and Kiski Area, and in their place come Baldwin and McKeesport, as the section drops from seven teams to six.
Here is a look at how all three local teams shape up coming into the 2013 season:
The Knights completed a second straight undefeated regular season last year, but a quarterfinal upset at the hands of Mt. Lebanon brought Norwin's year to an abrupt end.
A large senior group that included four Division I college players graduated from that team, but the cupboard isn't bare for Norwin with the return of last year's Tribune-Review Player of the Year, junior shortstop J.J. Matijevic, and power-hitting, Penn State-bound senior outfielder/first baseman Jake Pribanic.
Norwin also returns starters in senior second baseman/outfielder Casey Rebosky and junior pitcher/outfielder Noah Smith, who is the team's only regular pitcher returning from last year.
“The goal will always be the same for us — to make the playoffs, win the section and try to contend for a WPIAL championship,” Norwin coach Mike Liebdzinski said. “To be successful, we are going to need some inexperienced guys to make some big contributions.”
Junior catcher Dom Farina and junior outfielder Cody Stanoszek are two of the varsity newcomers that Liebdzinski hopes will have breakout years, while seniors Cody Sharik, Luke Vorce and Cody Sabol all should see greatly increased roles from last season.
“Cody Stanozsek and Dom Farina will need to perform well if we want to chance to win another section title,” Liebdzinski said. “I think we will have a pretty strong lineup again this year, but the pitching of Hempfield and Penn-Trafford will be tough to beat.”
Norwin has plenty of candidates to provide its own pitching help behind Smith. Senior C.J. Melocchi and juniors Kevin Kuhn, Steve Socrates, Matt Palo and Stanozsek all are in the running for starting spots on the hill, while those that don't start will contribute out of the bullpen.
As with nearly every WPIAL team, Norwin's season was scheduled to start last Friday, but its first three games were postponed. The team's next scheduled contest is Tuesday at North Allegheny, and it opens section play on Wednesday at Hempfield.
After some rocky moments to start last season, the Warriors came on by closing section play 4-2 in its final six games to reach the playoffs before a first-round loss to Upper St. Clair.
Six seniors graduated from that team, but a number of the returning players saw valuable playing time during the team's second-half surge to the playoffs.
“We do have guys with experience, but we're still very young,” Penn-Trafford coach Ron Evans said. “The guys we do have back from last year, five or six of them got a chance to play in a playoff game, so that's worth something.”
Where P-T does have some senior experience is on the hill, where senior pitchers Zak Wright and Ross Orgera give the Warriors a strong 1-2 punch. Senior Danny Owoc and junior Brendan Reddy also could eat some innings for P-T, and starting junior third baseman Tyler Smith could also serve as the team's third starting pitcher.
There will be very few seniors elsewhere in the infield, beginning behind the plate where sophomore Scott Koscho will be calling the pitches. Juniors Mark Merlino (first), Ryan Marasti (second) and Smith will man the bases, and sophomore Luke Smeltz will take over at shortstop.
The outfield will feature juniors Billy Dugan and Jake Morain and sophomore Chris Common along with Owoc and Reddy, while depth in the infield will come from two versatile fielders, sophomore Shane Churma and senior Dom Disso, who also is the team's other catcher.
“That's how our lineup would be if we started tomorrow, but really, there are about four or five positions that are still up for grabs,” Evans said.
“Naturally, we go in with the goal to make the playoffs, and we'd love to win the section. We have potential to battle in every game, but it's so early and we've been indoors so much, I really have no idea how our young kids are going to respond.”
The Warriors got in one scrimmage against Butler, but still have yet to play a regular-season contest. P-T has road games scheduled Thursday against McKeesport and Monday against West Mifflin before opening its section schedule on Wednesday at Kiski Area.
The Panthers ended a four-year playoff drought last year, and after graduating just three players, Franklin Regional should be in the mix for another top-three finish.
FR's lineup remains largely intact from 2012, which includes plenty of seniors with speed near the top of the order. Shortstop Danny McGrath and centerfielder Nick Vento both batted .403 last season, and pitcher/infielder Nick DiDiano hit .338.
Junior third baseman Brandon Nania and first baseman/pitcher Brett Myers bring pop to middle of the order after 15- and 13-RBI seasons, respectively, and junior outfield Colin Jonov adds even more speed to the lineup with seven steals last season.
“We're very happy with the group of guys we have coming back,” Franklin Regional coach Bobby Saddler said. “They've busted their butts in the offseason. Words can't say enough about their work ethic and how they've gone about improving themselves.”
Junior Patrick Kukalis and sophomore John Bondi also return after getting more than 50 plate appearances each last year, which gives Saddler plenty of parts he can move around in his lineup.
“Right now, we're trying to figure out our batting order,” Saddler said. “All of those (returning) guys were successful last year, so we're adjusting and tweaking to see who fits.”
The biggest hole for FR to fill is on the mound, as DiDiano is the leading returning pitcher with just 21 2⁄3 innings pitched in 2012.
DiDiano and sophomore Justin Johnson will be the top two hurlers entering the year for FR, while Myers and senior Connor Fitzmaurice lead the other pitchers who are expected to contribute.
“We're confident with the guys we have,” Saddler said. “We have some guys who are capable but we didn't use much last year because our top guys were going six or seven innings.”
Franklin Regional is getting its first game action this week, as the team traveled to Vero Beach, Fla., for its spring training. The team is in nonsection play next week with home games Monday against Blackhawk and Thursday against Knoch before starting section play on April 8 against McKeesport.
“With fewer secton games, each game is magnified even more,” Saddler said. “In our section, you can lose every game if you don't come to play. There's no gimmies.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.