Expectations high for Steel Valley baseball team after 1st section title in 19 years

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 1:51 a.m.

Tim Vickers looks at his veteran Steel Valley baseball team, he looks at his unusually deep and talented pitching staff, he looks at sure-to-be rebuilding teams in Section 4-AA and can come to only one conclusion.

“We cannot become complacent,” Vickers said

That just may be easier said than done.

Steel Valley won its first section title in 19 years with a bunch of juniors and with its best pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Those juniors are now seniors, Vickers found an ace in Brandon Donovan last year and Derek Morrison is 18 months removed from elbow surgery and has picked up where he left off two years ago.

Simply put: Steel Valley has high expectations heading into Friday's season-opener against Ringgold that ultimately could result in the school's first WPIAL championship come the end of May.

Vickers knows the expectations are high and, unfortunately, his players know it as well.

“We are doing everything in our power to convince these kids that this a brand new year,” said Vickers, who has a 73-53-1 record in seven seasons. “It is real easy to get into that rut. Once we get moving, maybe we can start looking at things, but I don't want to look ahead.”

According to Vickers, complacency has reared its ugly head at least once already during a practice and “let's just say that we stopped that immediately.”

Vickers has ammunition to combat complacency if he wants. Steel Valley went 12-6, won the section and was a sixth seed in the Class AA playoffs but was bounced in the first round for the third consecutive season.

“There were so many things that went right for this crew last year,” Vickers said. “We never thought some of that stuff was going to happen. It doesn't mean it will happen again. Hopefully, things will go down the right path again this year and we can do something special.”

If Steel Valley is going to make a run, it's going to be because of its pitching.

Morrison started playoff games as a freshman and sophomore in compiling a 8-3 record his first two years.

Morrison was the designated hitter last year and hit .491 with 11 extra base hits and 19 RBIs but wasn't permitted to pitch at all.

“I've been under the impression all along that you expect ups and downs with a kid coming off Tommy John surgery,” Vickers said.

“To be honest, I haven't seen any. He's progressed well and he's looked under control more than he's used to.”

Without Morrison, Donovan was thrust into the No. 1 role as a sophomore and didn't disappoint. He went 5-0 with a 1.15 ERA and struck out 49 in 36 13 innings. For his career, Donovan is 5-1 with a 1.15 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 48 13 innings.

“And now he somehow grew a slider over the past year to complement the curveball and fastball,” Vickers said. “We brought him along slow as a freshman, but he's been solid since Day 1.”

Throw in 6-foot-4 right-hander Jesse Cantley and his 37 strikeouts in 33 13 innings and 3.73 ERA, and Vickers very well could have the deepest staff in Class AA.

And then there are the seven returning senior starters in the field.

Morrison, Cantley (.351) and Donovan (.441) are the top returning hitters with the lineup being filled out with Mike Hoesch at first, Bryce Varhola at second, Sean McShane at short, Matt Hoesch at third and the outfield of Andrew Chuba (.317, 24 runs) in center, Sam Ligeros in left and either Morrison, Jesse Lyons or Justin Tester in right.

Cole Eged, a transfer from Central Catholic who didn't play baseball there, will take over for Patrick Jobes behind the plate.

“We have some holes to fill, but I like where we are,” Vickers said. “Last year, it was one game at a time but now it is down to one pitch at a time and that's the way we are approaching it.”

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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