Steel Valley leads area baseball teams seeking section titles
With a little more than a week left in the baseball season, there are only four undefeated teams left in the WPIAL, including Steel Valley.
Coach Tim Vickers couldn't care less.
Vickers would love nothing more than for his Ironmen to follow last year's first section title in 19 years with an undefeated regular season. Just don't expect to see that on his list of goals anytime soon.
“I am trying everything in my power not to make it a goal,” Vickers said. “It would be something to celebrate when it is all said and done. But right now, it is about winning the next game, winning the section and the playoffs.”
The Ironmen (11-0, 9-0) already clinched a playoff spot out of Section 4-AA and can earn a second consecutive section title with wins over Jeannette (4-6, 3-4) and South Allegheny (3-7, 2-5) next week.
But finishing the regular season undefeated could be tough given Steel Valley's remaining nonsection schedule.
The Ironmen have Class AAA Thomas Jefferson (7-4) and West Mifflin (10-2) this week and two Class AAAA teams, Penn Hills (4-7) and Moon (9-1), to end the season. The Ironmen also have a section finale against Shady Side Academy on May 5.
“That game might not matter, but if it comes down to that being a perfect section season and a higher seed in the playoffs, then it means a lot to us then,” Vickers said. “We learned our lesson last year, and we respect everybody we play this year.”
Vickers was referring to last year's first-round playoff game against Chartiers-Houston, when he decided against starting ace pitcher Brandon Donovan. Steel Valley was eliminated by Bucs, 12-6.
Steel Valley's success hasn't been a surprise. Vickers returned seven starters, including a dynamic one-two pitching punch of Donovan (3-0) and Derek Morrison (4-0). Sam Ligeros has filled in for an injured Jesse Cantley — he is expected to return soon — and has won all four of his decisions.
And with Morrison, Donovan and Andrew Chuba hitting over .400, it is easy to see why the Ironmen are unbeaten.
“Still, I really wasn't happy with two of the three wins we have had this week,” said Vickers about victories over Jeannette and Southmoreland. “I would've liked them to be a little cleaner, but, as they say, a win is a win.”
Four other area also are chasing section titles:
West Mifflin (10-2, 8-1): The Titans, who clinched their first playoff berth since 2010 on Thursday, brushed aside a tumultuous offseason in which veteran coach Jeff Kuzma wasn't asked back. West Mifflin has its sights set on its first section title since 2008 and can achieve that with a pair of wins next week.
“We always have bigger expectations than playoffs, but it means a heck of a lot to us,” senior catcher/outfielder Ryan Kandsberger said. “Really, I just want to see a 2014 on the banner in our gym so bad now.”
The Titans leaned on a strong pitching staff led by Cincinnati recruit A.J. Olasz (4-0, 0.83 ERA, 42 strikeouts). West Mifflin has a team ERA of 1.30.
Offensively, Olasz is hitting .378 with 15 RBIs, Dan Howard .457 with 10 RBIs, Kandsberger .439 and Zach Salmon .412.
The Titans have an outside chance of grabbing the top seed in the Class AAA playoffs if they win out.
Thomas Jefferson (7-4, 6-2): The Jaguars may be the biggest surprise in Class AAA. Under the direction of the third coach (Gregg Fouts) in three years, Thomas Jefferson has won six of its past seven games to climb within 1 1⁄2 games of first-place West Mifflin. The Jaguars have used solid pitching from Dave Stover and Jeremy Wasik to put them in position for a section title. TJ has games at Belle Vernon and at Elizabeth Forward along with home games against Carrick and West Mifflin.
Serra Catholic (10-3, 7-0): The Eagles started the season by losing three of their first four games but responded with nine straight wins to clinch a playoff spot for the 15th consecutive year. Serra has done it with pitching, allowing only 15 runs during the winning streak. Freshman Cole McCombs is 4-1 with 49 strikeouts. The Eagles can claim at least a share of the Section 2-A crown Monday with a win at Monessen.
Also alive for playoff berths are McKeesport in Section 2-AAAA, Elizabeth Forward in Section 4-AAA and South Allegheny in Section 4-AA.
Norwin (10-2, 7-2): The heavy hitting Knights are a game behind first-place Hempfield but lost a pair of one-run games to the Spartans. Norwin must win its final three Section 2-AAAA games and have Hempfield lose two of its final three. The Knights are led by shortstop J.J. Matijevic, who leads the WPIAL in home runs and RBIs.