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Veteran coach Rocco institutes change at East Allegheny

| Tuesday, April 8, 2014, 1:21 a.m.

John Rocco has been a baseball man for a long time. In his 32 seasons as a high school coach, he's led teams to countless playoff berths, mentored future high-profile athletes and come close to winning a PIAA title.

Rocco even was fired in 2006 after just one season as an assistant at McKeesport.

“They didn't win a game the year before, and we wound up winning seven,” said Rocco, who was let go, along with first-year head coach Ken Trusky, the former Pirates farmhand who previously had played for Rocco's teams at Swissvale.

“Ken called me up after the season and said, ‘We're done,'” Rocco said. “I liked it there. They had some good players on that team and I believe we could've turned it around.”

Rocco, who led Swissvale to a WPIAL Class AA championship and a fourth-place finish in the PIAA in 1980, is excited for the chance to lead Class AA East Allegheny to success. With a roster of just 15 players in his first season with the Wildcats, there's plenty of work to do, he said.

“The thing we lack the most is depth,” Rocco said. “We have 15 kids, and five of them are freshmen.”

One of those freshmen, first baseman Brett Resser, has been in the East Allegheny lineup for the team's first two games.

“This is a challenge, no question,” Rocco said. “But these are good players. They just have to learn to believe in themselves. There has been an atmosphere here that we'll just come out and play. These guys are good athletes. They have to realize that they have to perform better.

“We got a late start here and wanted to plug in some basic stuff. I realized pretty quickly that there were some things they hadn't done in the past that I wanted them to do — simple, fundamental things that they were unaware of.”

Elements such as hitting the cutoff man and running out groundballs.

“The kids have great attitudes,” Rocco said. “They've been working very hard. But it's been tough to continue to practice indoors with this weather.”

East Allegheny's scheduled Section 4-AA home game against Greensburg Central Catholic was postponed on Monday, leaving the Wildcats record at 0-2 overall and 0-1 in the section. It was their third consecutive rainout.

Rocco is being assisted by Morty Cape, a former East Allegheny head coach from 1996-2000. The two took over after the previous coaching staff was not retained. The Wildcats were a combined 21-65 in five seasons under Ryan Encapera, including 4-13 in 2013.

For Rocco, who also coached Woodland Hills following the merger of Swissvale and four other neighboring schools, it's been a crash course in learning his way around the East Allegheny program. He didn't learn of the coaching staff openings until mid-February, but he figured his experience would give him a good case to land the top job.

“I still love the game. I wanted to stay involved,” he said.

Rocco, 63, of Pitcairn also has served as an assistant head coach at Gateway.

He is proud to point out one notable trait of his: “I've never been happy with mediocrity.”

East Allegheny is counting on a handful of players that Rocco said can lead the team. He mentioned junior catcher Ryan Coles and sophomore righthander Matt Smith, who was the opening day pitcher in a 6-4 loss at Riverview on March 21.

East Allegheny has played just once since then. The team's next game is scheduled for Wednesday at Southmoreland.

Rocco also had high praise for the potential of his pitching staff. Besides Smith, Rocco named junior left-hander Justin Harner and senior righthanders Mason Pfeifer and Tanner Link.

The freshman Resser, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, gives the Wildcats great size at first.

“There is a lot of potential here to put together a good team,” Rocco said. “It's just a question of getting these guys to learn the system we have for them. I believe it's been a little tough for them so far.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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