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Sewickley Academy baseball makes history

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Sewickley Academy catcher Derrick Littlefield celebrates with Sam Duerr (17) and Drew Johnson after defeating OLSH in a WPIAL Class A playoff game Wednesday, May 14, 2014, at North Allegheny High School.

The Sewickley Academy baseball team is making history this season.

After last week's WPIAL Class A playoff wins over Bishop Canevin, 6-4, and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 4-2, the Panthers qualified for the semifinals for the first time in program history.

“(The players) have believed in the team all year long,” Sewickley Academy coach Andrew Heck. “It isn't about who starts the season 5-0. The playoffs are about who finished strong. We have developed as a team all season. And as a team, we have always believed in the goal of winning a WPIAL championship.”

The game against the Crusaders took two days to complete after rain soaked the field at Shaler and play was suspended in the bottom of the third inning May 12. The break in action may have benefited the Panthers as Bishop Canevin had cut into their lead and had two runners in scoring position.

“I looked at it as a positive,” senior Mike Manzinger said. “They had scored and had runners on second and third. I would say we were rattled. We used it as a timeout to collect ourselves. We knew we were a 13 seed that had a good chance to come out and shock people.”

A single to center field from Zach Cortese gave the Crusaders a 3-2 lead when play resumed on Tuesday. Bishop Canevin extended its lead to two in bottom of the fifth when Sam Smallhoover scored on a wild pitch. But Sewickley Academy took control in the top of the sixth as it scored four runs thanks to timely hits from Manzinger, John Nagel and Drew Zbihley.

The Panthers changed pitchers during the break in play from Joe Nagel to Sam Duerr, a move that largely kept the Crusaders' batters off balance.

“I couldn't be happier for (Duerr),” Heck said. “I call him our secret weapon. He is a guy I wish I would have thrown more last season. I know how good he is. Joe is a competitor but he threw 50 pitches the first day. I told him we have good arms behind you and (Duerr) was a senior itching to get on the mound.”

Duerr had four strikeouts in four innings. After a rough third inning, he held Bishop Canevin to one hit the rest of the game.

“I am content with how I paced the team to the win,” Duerr said. “But I cannot take credit for the win. All the players on the team really picked us up and played unbelievably. I am very excited for the team.”

Against OLSH, Drew Johnson threw 93 pitches with seven strikeouts and two walks in the win. The Panthers and Chargers were not strangers as they both compete in Section 5-A. Sewickley Academy recorded a 6-5 home win in the series on April 23 but fell on the road to OLSH, 4-3, on May 1.

The Panthers pounced on OLSH early in the rubber match as their first three batters — Manzinger, John Nagel and Joe Nagel — all got on base and scored.

“We should have taken two from them during the regular season,” Heck said. “The big thing for the game was to get solid pitching and (Johnson) did it for us. We got ahead and we're able to stay ahead.”

The playoff success this season is unparalleled for Sewickley Academy. In addition to being the team's first trip to the WPIAL semifinals, the win over Bishop Canevin was the first postseason victory for the program in more than 15 years.

“The change in mentality over the last two years in unbelievable,” Heck said. “The team has gone from the team who was supposed to lose to the best teams and win against the not as good teams. They are competing against everyone now.”

The Panthers have ensured themselves a shot at the PIAA tournament. By reaching the WPIAL semifinals, they will play in either the championship or consolation game next week.

While this is uncharted territory for Sewickley Academy, the team isn't going to just be happy with what they have achieved already.

“This really means a lot for our team, especially the seniors,” Manzinger said. “We have been through enough heartbreak for a soap opera. We know we are going to fight to the end from here on out. If you go out and give it your all, you'll have no regrets.”

Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at nsmith@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NSmith_Trib.

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