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Norwin baseball looks to end string of early playoff exits

| Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 10:48 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Norwin pitcher Noah Smith delivers a pitch during a game against Hempfield at Norwin on Monday, March 31, 2014. Hempfield won 4-3.

Noah Smith hasn't forgotten Norwin's 6-4 loss to North Allegheny in the WPIAL Class AAAA first round a season ago, a game that wasn't over until Lucas Hilderbrand's snowcone catch in right-center produced the final out.

“I pitched that entire game. It's the best game I ever pitched,” Smith said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Gets on my nerves every day.”

Playoff memories have been plenty for the Knights, who have made nine postseason appearances over the past 10 years, but the unfortunate reality is most of them have turned out to be nightmares.

Norwin is 5-10 in the postseason since 2003, and three of those wins came during a 2006 trip to the WPIAL championship game.

“When we started this process 10 years ago, we wanted to build a program where we were there every year,” Norwin coach Mike Liebdzinski said. “We've gotten to the point where we're there every year. Now it's time to start putting one, two and three wins together in the playoffs instead of bowing out early.”

With three Division I recruits and a roster that will, at times, include nine senior starters, the Knights think this year is the perfect time to make a postseason push.

Senior shortstop J.J. Matijevic holds the program's home run record and is committed to Arizona. Catcher Dom Farina is a Youngstown State recruit, and Smith is headed to Mount St. Mary's.

The three have been around for a pair of undefeated regular seasons, two section titles and 45 wins, but the Knights have gone 1-3 in the postseason during that span, never advancing past the WPIAL quarterfinals.

“With the success we've had in the regular season, I feel like we've gone into the playoffs thinking we were going to run over teams because we did that in the regular season,” Matijevic said. “The postseason is a lot different, and we have to stay focused.”

Three seniors — center fielder Dylan Sabo, infielder Steve Socrates and outfielder Cody Stanoszek — return as starters. Same for junior left fielder Connor Perry.

Second baseman Dan Passerello, third baseman/designated hitter Jake Zambo, third baseman Nick Amendola and first baseman Kevin Kuhn are also potential starters.

Norwin (2-1, 0-1) opened with lopsided wins over Penn Hills and Valley before a 4-3, extra-inning loss to Section 1-AAAA rival Hempfield on Monday.

Matijevic (2), Stanoszek, Amendola and sophomore Reno Rainey have all homered, while Stanoszek has added three doubles. Smith earned the pitching win against Penn Hills with eight strikeouts.

“It's a more experienced group,” Liebdzinski said. “The approach at the plate has been good. We're a veteran group so maybe there's a little better understanding of what we're trying to get accomplished.”

Pitching depth remains a concern. Smith has been clocked as high as 87-88 mph while refining his curveball and changeup. But behind him will be a mix of Amendola, Kuhn and senior Nick Palo.

Liebdzinski admitted the coaching staff was perhaps a little too rigid in years past, causing players to tense up. He's hoping a more mellow approach will trigger a change for the better.

“We were really on top of them as far as being at your best, but I think we've learned to maybe have them more relaxed,” Liebdzinski said. “They know they're good enough to play with every team; they just have to relax and stay within themselves.

“I think we've mellowed out a bit, and I think this group is focused.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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