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Mature Hopewell baseball team rises to top under new coach

| Tuesday, April 23, 2013, 10:51 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hopewell's Stefan Mrkonja singles during a game against Central Valley on April 18, 2013.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hopewell's Tim Hughes rounds the bases past coach Mike Shuleski on April 18, 2013, after hitting a home run during a game against Central Valley.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hopewell coach Mike Shuleski looks over his team from the dugout on April 18, 2013, during a game against Central Valley.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hopewell's Stefan Mrkonja runs down a fly ball in center field on April 18, 2013, during a game against Central Valley.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Hopewell coach Mike Shuleski watches as Tim Hughes rounds the bases after hitting a home run April 18, 2013, against Central Valley.

Any concerns new Hopewell coach Michael Shuleski had about this season were eased during his team's travels to South Carolina.

The trip went as smooth as a week at the beach.

“I can't say enough about their conduct down there,” said Shuleski, the team's third coach in three years, who credits the team's maturity and focus for handling distractions on the field and off. “They were at curfew on time, the way they conducted themselves with the staff at the hotel and the bus drivers. It's a good group of kids.”

The team was visiting Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Cal Ripken Tournament in late March. Those were the first games as coach for Shuleski, who was understandably apprehensive.

“I wasn't really sure how that trip would go,” said Shuleski, who brought both the varsity and junior varsity teams, a total of 37 players. “But it was a great thing.”

The maturity seen then has since helped Hopewell (13-1) become the top-ranked team in WPIAL Class AAA despite coaching changes the past two seasons.

The team hasn't dwelled on what could have been a huge off-field distraction, a focus that has allowed the Vikings to win baseball games, too.

“Baseball is a game where you have so much time between pitches to think about what happened, those are distractions you need to be able to overcome,” Shuleski said. “... You've got to be able to move on to what comes next, whether that's baseball or life.”

The team lost 80-year-old coach Joe Colella to a heart attack in September 2011. Colella, the WPIAL's winningest coach, had led the program for 48 years.

His assistant, Joe Rubino, led Hopewell to the WPIAL semifinals in 2012.

But in January, Rubino was charged by police with having inappropriate contact with a female student.

That left Shuleski, 32, to run the program. A teacher at Hopewell who played American Legion baseball for Colella, Shuleski was a varsity assistant last season. He previously coached the freshman team.

“When the opportunity came up, I wanted to give it a shot,” said Shuleski, a South Side Beaver graduate.

Hopewell has started seven seniors, including center fielder Stefan Mrkonja, a four-year starter, and shortstop Ryan Cox, a three-year starter. Third baseman Arion Sepp, second baseman Logan Johnston, first baseman Tim Hughes, pitcher Clayton Covalt and left fielder Joe Kunzmann also are seniors. Catcher Austin Mike and right fielder Shane Martin are juniors.

“They've been playing together for a while and have experience in the postseason,” Shuleski said. “From top to bottom, they're very driven.”

Seven have batting averages better than .340, with Hughes (.447), Cox (.500) and Johnston (.513) among its leaders. Hughes has 20 RBI, and Johnston has 19. Covalt (four wins, 23 Ks) and Kunzmann (two wins, 21 Ks) have pitched the most innings.

“Pitching and defense are where we start,” Shuleski said. “... but I like our ability to hit one through nine in the batting order.”

Hopewell navigated the first half of its Section 1-AAA schedule undefeated, with wins over Ambridge, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Montour and West Allegheny. The section's second half begins Wednesday against Montour. Its only nonsection loss was to Seneca Valley, the two-time defending Class AAAA champion.

Yet, one of Shuleski's favorite moments came weeks ago. After a game in South Carolina, the senior class presented a game ball to a team manager to show appreciation.

“People look at the wins and losses, I like the way they're maturing,” Shuleski said. “It's nice to watch.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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