Seneca Valley grads Helisek, Mazzoni moving up minor-league ranks
Football might be king in Western Pennsylvania, but baseball is pushing its way to the forefront, particularly in the northern portion of the region.
Players such as Neil Walker and Blake Lalli from Pine-Richland have climbed the ranks into the majors, and a pair of former Seneca Valley stars are making the trek as well.
Two members of the 2007 Seneca Valley PIAA championship team are playing in the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets.
Pitchers Kyle Helisek (St. Louis) and Cory Mazzoni (New York) have taken what they learned at Seneca Valley and parlayed it into a rising professional baseball career. Helisek is at Class A Peoria, and Mazzoni is at Double-A Binghampton.
And although they are moving toward the big leagues, they will never forsake their roots.
“I talk to those guys every week,” Seneca Valley baseball coach Eric Semega said. “Those guys are all about hard work. Kyle has done really well in the innings he has worked, and Cory just came off the disabled list.”
Semega gets together with Helisek and Mazzoni when they come home over holiday breaks and takes the time to catch up.
“It all starts with coach Semega and the great relationship we have with him,” Helisek said. “He runs his program like a college program, which makes a big difference.”
Helisek attended Villanova University and said the increased competition helped him better prepare for the pros.
“The jump from college to the pros was a transition,” Helisek said. “Changing from metal to wood bats; going from pitching in a two- or three-man rotation to pitching once a week where you are one of five and the schedule are all adjustments (I had to make).”
Helisek was drafted in the 30th round by the Mets and spent last year in the short-season New York-Penn League. He attended a pro day at Villanova and impressed the Mets enough that they drafted him.
“It was definitely one of the best days of my life,” Helisek said. “I get to keep playing baseball and don't have to get a real job.”
Mazzoni said it was special to be a part of a high school team that sent two players to the pros, with a third, Tyler Bream also getting drafted. Bream opted to go to college first and did not sign.
Mazzoni also went the college route and had three good seasons at North Carolina State before going pro.
“There were great times in college, and I am glad I went,” Mazzoni said. “I learned a bunch in college, and I am not sure I would be here (if not for college).”
Mazzoni said it is a grind playing 140 games in Double-A, but he plans to keep progressing and growing with the game.
Like Helisek, Mazzoni credits a share of his success to Semega and the Seneca Valley program.
“Coach Semega wants things done the right way,” Mazzoni said. “We went to college, and I am thankful for that.”
The adjustment to the new lifestyle was perhaps the biggest adjustment for both players. The work versus free time schedule and the bus travel takes a toll, but it is a price both are willing to pay.
“It's a long season, so we usually hang out in the morning or go to the movies,” Helisek said.
Being a starting pitcher, Helisek pitches every sixth day. He works out two days, throws in the bullpen two days and does a lot of running.
“You can't take a day off, but some days are lighter than others,” he said.
Mazzoni has an arsenal of three pitches (fastball, curve and changeup) and said that was the key to succeeding at this level.
“I worked on the changeup and cleaned up my mechanics,” Mazzoni said.
The next step, of course, is making the major leagues. Until then, they'll keep dreaming.
“It's exciting to play in front of the fans,” Helisek said, “and to wake up each day and play baseball and to keep getting better.”
Jerry Clark is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.