Defending champion North Allegheny hitting stride as postseason looms
After school on Monday, North Allegheny practiced on its baseball field. It was the first time this season the team went from class to grass.
“We've snuck in a couple Sunday practices on the field when the weather's been nice,” coach Andy Maddix said, “but this was the first time we were able to get out of class, go out and practice. It's been a tough spring.”
Rain has been a problem for everyone, but especially teams with first-year starters. That includes North Allegheny, which replaced eight of its nine from last year's lineup that won the WPIAL Class AAAA title. Only senior Mitchell Machi, an outfielder and pitcher, remains.
As a result, North Allegheny (12-6, 8-2) lost two of its first five games. It also lost three of four in a mid-April stretch. But the team won eight of its final nine section games and tied with Butler for the Section 1-AAAA title.
“Everyone who's had a team with new guys, we've made our mistakes in games,” Maddix said. “We haven't been able to practice as much as in years past. We're definitely growing as we speak.”
North Allegheny completes its regular season Wednesday against No. 1 Hempfield. The team already owns nonsection wins over Mt. Lebanon and Pine-Richland, two other section leaders.
“I wish the season was 40 games long,” Maddix said, “because the more we play, the better we get.”
North Allegheny's lineup started the season with limited varsity experience, but it isn't all that young. There are six seniors who start: Machi, first baseman Josh Plichta, second baseman Matt Muslin, outfielder Dan Trettle, outfielder/pitcher Jason Monper and designated hitter Luke Zahren, who bats for senior outfielder Lucas Gray. Junior catcher Ryan Hamm and two sophomores, third baseman Blake Young and shortstop Garrett Hagen, complete the lineup.
“We had some guys who came into the season with zero varsity at-bats,” Maddix said. “It was tough on them to play (junior varsity) as a junior, or be on the bench and know they have some talent. But it's nice to see kids run with it when they're given an opportunity.”
Plichta is batting .440, and Zahren has an on-base percentage above .400.
Machi, a Buffalo recruit who plays center field, has a 4-1 pitching record, a .480 batting average and 23 RBIs.
He leads a deep pitching staff that features senior right-hander Tyler Saundry and sophomore left-hander Jon Dignazio. Saundry, a Niagara recruit who has an ERA less than 1.00, has four saves. Dignazio earned the team's last two section wins, over Butler and New Castle.
The team's strong pitching showed in a 12-inning win over rival Seneca Valley on April 10. Machi allowed one run in seven innings. Dignazio pitched five shutout innings in relief. It came one day after North Allegheny had lost to Butler, 2-1. Maddix called the win a turning point.
“Winning that game the way we did propelled us forward,” Maddix said.
The WPIAL playoff brackets will be released Friday. The four-round tournament ends May 27-28 with championship games at Consol Energy Park in Washington. Despite many new faces, the defending champion could make another run.
“We're not entirely sure what to expect,” Maddix said. “We're a team that if we play well, we're as good as anyone. We've been a little inconsistent. I'm just hoping we can get some more practices outside.”