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Steel Valley pitcher tosses 1-hitter to down Apollo-Ridge

| Friday, May 16, 2014, 9:51 p.m.
Dan Speicher | For the Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge's Ryan Ferguson (left), tags out Steel Valley's Bryce Varhola at second base during the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs Friday, May 16, 2014, at Fox Chapel.

Steel Valley pitcher Brandon Donovan showed how doing the least amount of work sometimes is a good thing.

Donovan faced the minimum and struck out 13 in a one-hitter to lead No. 3 Steel Valley to a 1-0 win over Apollo-Ridge in the first round of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs Friday at Fox Chapel.

The Ironmen (15-2) advance to face 11th-seeded Riverside at 2 p.m. Saturday at Woodland Hills in a quarterfinal after Donovan's gem helped Steel Valley end a streak of three straight first-round exits.

“It was a perfect example of efficient pitching,” Steel Valley coach Tim Vickers said. “When you see strikeout totals like that, how many times do you see pitch counts go up? After the second or third inning, we said we're not going to waste pitches. He took that and ran with it. He was absolutely dominant, and that was the best performance I've ever seen out of him.”

Apollo-Ridge coach Joe Rice seconded the praise of Donovan. The Steel Valley junior relied on his breaking pitches, and he struck out the first batter he faced in six out of seven innings.

“He mixed it up so well. The change of speeds made it really hard for our heavier hitters to adjust to,” Rice said. “They were just craving the fastball, and he would not feed it to them. He definitely looks like a pitcher that's going to play at the next level, for sure.”

The Vikings (7-8), who were making their first playoff appearance in 21 years as the 14th seed, got an outstanding pitching performance from junior Austin Laird.

Though Laird lacked the strikeout total of his counterpart with two, he limited an Ironmen squad that batted nearly .400 during the regular season to five hits and got out of most of the trouble he faced, such as a walk issued to open the game.

“That's been Austin's M.O. all season. I learned in our first game that he doesn't really start heating up until the third inning,” Rice said. “He just gets stronger as the innings go on. I was ready to pull him, if needed, but he kept forcing me to leave him in.”

The only run Laird yielded came from Steel Valley's shortstop and No. 9 hitter, Sean McShane.

With one out in the top of the third, McShane got enough of a pitch from Laird to drop an opposite-field hit just inside the foul line. Apollo-Ridge right fielder Dylan Wingard, who already was playing toward center field, was slow to react, which allowed McShane to hustle around for a triple.

During the next at-bat, McShane used his speed again to score the game's only run on a wild pitch.

“It's kind of weird now for us (advancing to the quarterfinals) because it feels like our first time being in the playoffs. We're like the kid that could get on base, but we just got to second for the first time,” Vickers said.

“Nothing's been enough for these kids all year. They won the section, no celebration. They finished the section, no celebration. Today, I see some smiles, but they're ready to get back out and play the next one.”

Laird had the only hit for Apollo-Ridge with a pop-up single that fell in shallow right field in the bottom of the third.

Courtesy runner Doug Shaffor stole second, but he later was picked off on a close play that ended the inning and the only scoring threat for the Vikings.

“I couldn't ask for a better group of kids, and they showed up to play today, especially on defense,” Rice said. “We've got a taste for playoff baseball now, and this makes our guys hungry for more. They don't want it to be another 21 years for the next playoff game. They want to become a mainstay here.”

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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