Norwin baseball seeks elusive WPIAL title
For all of the Norwin baseball program's success over the past decade — nine playoff appearances, five section titles, two undefeated regular seasons and a WPIAL runner-up finish — the Knights' players know one very notable achievement is missing.
Heading into the 2014 season, that unaccomplished goal — winning the school's first WPIAL championship since 1960 — is driving a senior-laden team.
“Coming into this year, our first goal obviously is to win the section, win some playoff games and eventually get to that WPIAL championship game and bring it home,” senior shortstop J.J. Matijevic said.
“We're all seniors now,” senior catcher Dom Farina added. “This is our year, and our chance to step up.”
More than just the WPIAL title is motivating the Knights in 2014. Norwin saw its four-year run as section champion end last season, as the Knights finished in third place in Section 1-AAAA with a 9-8 overall record. The team fell to North Allegheny, 6-4, in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
“This year, I think we're coming out with a chip on our shoulder,” Farina said. “We want to go out and get that section title, and I think we're looking pretty good.”
Last season, the Knights dealt with inexperience. Only two starters and four letterwinners returned from the 2012 team, causing some early growing pains.
After finishing with undefeated regular seasons in 2011 and 2012, Norwin lost its season opener, 10-0, to Hempfield in 2013. Two games later, the Knights lost, 12-0, to North Allegheny, and the team suffered 7-0 and 11-1 losses later in the year.
“I think at the beginning of the year last year we struggled a bit with the preparation and the focus that we have,” Norwin coach Mike Liebdzinski said. “I don't think that's an issue this year. I think these guys are pretty focused. I don't think they're any more motivated because we always have the same goals starting out, but I think they're more focused of having a little bit better year and getting back to where we want to be.”
This season, an experienced roster that includes 10 seniors and eight players who saw extended playing time will bolster the Knights. Norwin's starting lineup could include eight or nine seniors this season: Farina, Matijevic, Kevin Kuhn, Dan Passarello, Dylan Sabo, Noah Smith, Steve Socrates, Cody Stanoszek and Jake Zambo. Junior Connor Perry could see extended playing time in the outfield.
“With a lot of seniors this year, it's a lot of leadership,” Matijevic said. “There's a couple of sophomores and juniors that have to step up, but I feel our team is really strong. Our team works really hard, and I feel we're going to be ready for the season.”
The Knights' offense will be led by Division I prospects in Farina (Youngstown State) and Matijevic (Arizona). Another Division I prospect in Smith (Mount St. Mary's) will anchor the pitching rotation.
Liebdzinski said the pitching depth after Smith remains somewhat of a question mark. The Knights will look to Kuhn, Perry, senior Nick Palo, junior John Driggers and sophomore Nick Amendola to contribute on the mound this season.
“You know you're going to get backed up at some point (by weather), so you know you're going to need your third and fourth pitcher to go out and perform for you,” Liebdzinski said. “It's a matter of getting them a little more experience early in the year.
“They're still improving. I think the other guys are going to be fine, but we still don't know for sure because we haven't seen them perform enough on the mound to know for sure.”
Liebdzinski said he expected the section race to be a tight one with returning playoff teams Hempfield and Penn-Trafford, and he thought Latrobe and Connellsville could also compete for the postseason.
Norwin is scheduled to begin the season by hosting nonsection opponent Penn Hills at 4 p.m. Friday. Section play is scheduled to begin March 31 against Hempfield.
“I think we'll have another good year,” Liebdzinski said. “We just need to do a better job of proving it once we get to the playoffs.”