Distinct A-K Valley flavor to Penn State DuBois' baseball title
When it came time to resurrect the Penn State DuBois baseball team after a 20-year hiatus, Lions coach Tom Calliari looked for a few All-Kiski Valley kids who wanted to work hard and build a winning program.
Calliari found them.
“I talked to (Kiski Valley Legion coach) Dennis Montgomery and know his legendary status down there as a baseball coach, and he has a good feel for the Pittsburgh area and for tough kids,” said Calliari, who just finished his fourth season as the Lions coach. “He teaches the game right and makes them accountable, and if he puts his name on a player, I know that they're going to be accountable. The three guys he sent me are tremendous and high-character kids.”
Those “three guys” are Dave Kozlowski (Deer Lakes), Jon Thomas (Highlands) and Frankie Stefko (Freeport).
All three went to Penn State DuBois not knowing what the team had in store for the 2018 season.
After second-place finishes at the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Small College World Series the previous two years, Penn State DuBois (31-11) finally reached the summit by beating The Apprentice School (Va.), 10-2, for the title.
“I was just so thrilled to be able to play for (Penn State) DuBois in DuBois,” said Kozlowski, who is playing this summer for Core Athletics in the Tri-County Collegiate League. “It's a dream to win in your town. The stands were filled, and the whole town was there.”
Kozlowski was an outfielder at Deer Lakes, mostly because he was buried in the pitching rotation behind Zach Lubick, who just finished up his freshman season at Virginia Wesleyan, and then-junior Jake McCaskey. Kozlowski finished his senior season at Deer Lakes with a 1.00 ERA through seven innings in four appearances.
“Dave was tremendous,” Calliari said. “He was behind a lot of guys in high school, and he was kind of a hidden gem. He threw some big innings out of the bullpen early in the season.”
Kozlowski made 12 appearances this season, pitched 11 1⁄3 innings and had a 6.35 ERA.
“It's a different atmosphere,” Kozlowski said. “It's just a lot different seeing other guys hitting deep bombs. You just have to have faith in your fielders. It was higher competition with better skill.”
When Calliari needed a catcher last summer, he called Montgomery looking for depth.
“He said, ‘I have a kid who is out of school and doing cement work,' ” Calliari said.
Stefko graduated from Freeport in 2016 but did not go straight to college. He worked for his father's cement business.
At Penn State DuBois, Stefko saw considerable action as a freshman catcher.
He appeared in 13 games and finished the season with a .267 batting average with three RBIs, three runs scored and a stolen base. Calliari said Stefko is one of the best defensive catchers he's seen.
“(Defense) is the part of the game that I really took pride at an early age in,” said Stefko. “It kind of came naturally for me.”
What also came naturally for Stefko was leadership, and it didn't go unnoticed at the school. Stefko was named the John Fritz Sportsmanship Award in baseball by the Penn State University Athletic Conference in May.
“If you're at games, you'll notice the guy getting the bat and you hear him in the dugout cheering his teammates on,” Calliari said. “I absolutely love Frank Stefko. I love that kid. Frankie is a very noticeable teammate.”
Thomas was the first of the trio to commit to DuBois. Thomas and Stefko were teammates on the 2016 Kiski Valley team that made it to the Pennsylvania Legion title game, where it lost to Beechcreek.
“It was weird. As soon as I found out that (Stefko) was going to Dubois, we ended up roommates together,” said Thomas, who is spending his summer in San Diego, Calif., playing collegiate travel ball for the San Diego Hustle. “I was really nervous going into the school not knowing everybody, and it was really a lot easier to get used to knowing that Dave and Frankie were there.”
Thomas and Stefko couldn't help but think about the loss to Beechcreek in the Legion final the night before playing the final game of the World Series. It probably didn't help that some of their college teammates were opponents in the Legion game.
Thomas saw action at third base as a freshman and finished with a .231 batting average, six RBIs and one home run in his 28 plate appearances.
“He has some potential and has that California laid-back personality,” Calliari said. “He has pop in his hands.”
Calliari said while most of his players come from nearby District 6 and District 9 schools, when he's looking for holes to fill the next place he turns is the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“We get a handful of guys from the Montgomerys from down in that area, and they're tough kids,” Calliari said. “It takes a unique person to come here.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.