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Freeport, Apollo-Ridge baseball teams lack postseason experience of opponents

| Friday, May 9, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

If there's one common thread to Freeport and Apollo-Ridge's opponents for the WPIAL baseball playoffs, it's that they have the edge in postseason experience.

The Yellowjackets received the No. 6 seed and will face Riverside at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Shaler. The Vikings will take on No. 3 Steel Valley at 5:30 p.m. the same day at Fox Chapel in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA tournament.

Freeport (11-5) would be considered the favorite in its game based on seeding, but coach Chris Graczyk knows his team is in for a battle against a Riverside (11-5) team that has won three WPIAL titles in the last 18 years, the most recent coming in 2011.

“They've been there before. They've gone to the finals, and they've won it,” Graczyk said. “Our guys are used to winning and getting into the playoffs, but when we get there, we haven't been as successful. We're going to have our work cut out for us.”

Riverside finished tied for second in Section 5-AA behind Neshannock, the No. 1 seed, yet the Panthers were dropped down to the 11th seed.

The Yellowjackets got their first playoff win in 15 years last season, and to repeat that feat this year, they'll have to continue hitting the ball well.

First baseman Matt Swartz and outfielder Noah Shannon played in last year's playoff win, and they are the RBI leaders on a team with a .370 batting average as a group.

Graczyk declined to indicate which of his three top pitchers would start and said that call might be matchup-based.

“I'm going to leave that decision as to-be-determined,” Graczyk said. “I'll probably go with a gut instinct when I get a chance to see what Riverside has done against different guys. I've still got some homework to do on them.”

In the case of Apollo-Ridge, it didn't take much to have more playoff experience than the Vikings (7-7), who are making their first appearance in 21 years.

Steel Valley (14-2) certainly fits that bill — the Ironmen are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season — but the team has lost in the first round in each of those seasons, including a 7-5 upset last year at the hands of 11th-seeded Chartiers-Houston.

“I'm sure their history is going to give them a little motivation, and we're still soaking up the experience of being in the playoffs,” Apollo-Ridge coach Joe Rice said. “But I think being the wide-eyed unknown can be in our favor. We have no preconceived ideas. We're just going in hungry and wanting more.”

The Vikings enter the playoffs on a roll after winning five of their last six games, including the final three against Burrell, West Shamokin and Ford City simply to reach the playoffs.

Rice credits his team's work ethic for the upswing, but he also said the weather has played a big role.

“We're getting into a groove. We're playing well, and part of it is because we're finally getting outside more,” Rice said. “Being on the field on a daily basis has made a huge difference for this squad.”

Like Graczyk, Rice declined to name a starting pitcher.

Jarrett Geiger and Austin Laired pitched the last two games, which means if Rice sticks to a rotation, it will be the turn of Mike Percic, who also is the team's leader in RBIs (17) and home runs (four).

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.

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