Coward pitches Seneca Valley into semifinals
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Throwing a baseball used to cause terrible pain for Seneca Valley's Connor Coward, but now he's leaving his opponents hurting.
The Raiders' right-hander threw a one-hit shutout Wednesday to beat No. 8 Bethel Park, 2-0, in the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals, a year after a stress-fractured vertebrae kept him from pitching at all.
Now healthy, the undefeated junior has become an ace for No. 1 Seneca Valley (17-3), the two-time defending WPIAL champions.
“He absolutely has worked to get where he's at,” Seneca Valley coach Eric Semega said.
Second baseman Gianpaul Gonzalez drove home both Seneca Valley runs with a two-out, two-run single in the third. The bouncing ball over second base scored Brad Gresock and Carson Kessler.
Gonzalez, a junior, also made a strong defensive play in the seventh to turn a likely hit into the game's next-to-last out. The newcomer from Puerto Rico ranged to his right for a slowly bouncing ball and then threw across his body.
That was enough for Coward, who allowed only a second-inning single and retired the final nine batters in order. He sprinted off the mound one pitch too soon when what he thought was a game-ending strike was called a ball. He returned and finished the strikeout with his next pitch.
“It's really good when I can locate two of my pitches,” said Coward, who uses fastball, knuckle-curve and changeup. “Today it was all three.”
“Everything (was working),” Semega said. “His location, his pitches, his confidence.”
With a first-round bye, Seneca Valley was able to save Coward for the second round. The Raiders will face No. 4 Pine-Richland (17-4) in Tuesday's semifinals.
The back injury had limited Coward to playing left field as a sophomore. Rest and physical therapy allowed it to heal, he said.
“When I would bend down toward my toes, it wouldn't cause pain,” Coward said. “But when I would extend to throw, it would. It was damaging the nerves as well. Any kind of throwing irritated it.”
Bethel Park starter Tyler Grashoff nearly matched Coward. The lefty allowed eight hits but mostly avoided trouble, the third inning being the exception. With one out, Gresock was hit by a pitch, and Kessler followed with a two-out single. Then Gonzalez bounced a ball up the middle, scoring both.
Bethel Park (17-5) was trying to reach the semifinals for the second time in three seasons.
“We played nearly perfect,” Bethel Park coach Tony Fisher said, “but you have to tip your hat to them. They're tough.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.
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