Seneca Valley's Coward caps senior year with magical run to WPIAL baseball title
Seniors hope their final year of high school is one they will never forget.
It's one last chance to enjoy the high school experience before heading off to the real world.
It's the last time to pal around with classmates, see the teachers who helped shape them and, for many, to play out the senior season of their favorite sport.
The reality of all that set in early this year for Seneca Valley's Connor Coward, way before he and the Raiders baseball team won an improbable WPIAL title.
Coward, the ace pitcher on arguably the best baseball team in the WPIAL in the past four seasons, was struggling with a back injury as the season was about to begin. He was not sure if he would ever throw another strike as a Raider.
“It was flaring up at the beginning of the year, and I was not sure how serious it was, so I shut it down. … That was tough,” Coward said. “It was tough to sit and watch (the team) struggle.”
Coward sat, and he watched.
He offered encouragement to the pitching staff.
From time to time, he gave advice.
“I really didn't want to over step my bounds,” he said. “Alex (Hajduk) was the only pitcher with experience, the rest of the guys were newer.”
The Raiders never won back-to-back games during the regular season, but scratched out five section wins, perhaps the most notable a 14-4 decision over North Hills. The other wins came against New Castle and Fox Chapel, which won a combined four section games.
It was not the prettiest season in the annals of Seneca Valley baseball, but it earned the Raiders one of the 16 seats at the playoff table, albeit the 16th and final seat.
The draw: No. 1 ranked Hempfield, a team riding a 10-game winning streak into the playoffs.
By this point, Coward felt well enough to pitch. He had been working in the bullpen, but had not seen live action this season.
While Coward was not slated to start, Seneca Valley coach Eric Semega planned to bring him out of the bullpen if the situation called for it. But the Raiders seized control of the game early and, with a 10-run barrage, Semega opted to rest Coward until round two.
“I was getting asked all the time, ‘Are you close?'” Coward said. “I didn't have an answer.”
Coward answered everyone's question on May 17.
In a second-round matchup with Shaler, Coward got the starting nod. His first pitch was a strike, which sparked six scoreless innings of work, and ultimately a 3-0 win.
“It was so exciting,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I didn't go out and try to do too much. I had a lot of attention on me, and it was a big stage, so I wanted to be sure I didn't overdo it.
“I wanted to get in a groove and settle in early.”
Matt Rafferty, a teammate of Coward's for the past five seasons, was not shocked at the effect Coward had on the team.
“We know he is a key pitcher, and with him in there, it boosted our confidence,” Rafferty said. “It made us strive more for the WPIAL championship.”
Coward knew he didn't have the time to work through a rough patch. With the season down to single elimination, he knew he had to be sharp.
One game away from the WPIAL finals, the Raiders drew a familiar opponent, Pine-Richland, the team they met in this spot last season.
With Coward again on the hill, the Raiders eked out a 5-4 win, sending them to the WPIAL finals for the fourth year in a row.
“I never felt like our record (8-11 heading into the game against the Rams) reflected the type of team we are,” Coward said. “It was nice to be a part of it.”
With the opportunity to win three WPIAL Quad A championships in four seasons, Coward once again got the nod. After coming up just short last season, and after falling behind 2-0 to Baldwin after one inning, Semega held a brief team meeting on the mound. Whatever was said reestablished the form the Raiders had shown in the previous three games, and the team banded together to rally to a 5-2 win.
For the Raiders, the season was remarkable. For Coward, it took a little time to sink in.
“It didn't hit me until I was on the mound,” he said. “I wanted to do my part to get that win.”
Coward pitched a complete game, and in a season he was not sure he would be a part of, the senior got to live a championship dream.
The run ended in the PIAA semifinals, a 3-2 loss to Conestoga. Although a PIAA crown evaded the Raiders, this season was a magical one.
“We had the final team meeting, and the seniors were thanked and then it was on to future plans,” Coward said. “This year was one for the memories, I feel blessed.”
The next opportunity for Coward will be at Virginia Tech, where he will continue his education and baseball career.
Coward caught the eye of the Virginia Tech coaches as part of the Pittsburgh Diamond Dogs, where he got the chance to pitch on a big stage against college-bound talent.
“I like math and science, so I will pursue an engineering degree,” Coward said. “The education at Virginia Tech was the priority, but the baseball team is top notch as well.
“I am blessed to be a part of Seneca Valley and to get a good education and play the game I love for another four years.”
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.