Ligonier Valley hopes to grow into contender
John Jones has been coaching the Ligonier Valley baseball team for eight seasons.
And despite losing six starters from the 2016 team that finished with a 5-1 loss to Mt. Union in the District 6-AA playoffs, Jones is excited about the Rams' chances in 2017, especially late in the season.
Ligonier Valley will be a young, inexperienced club early on, but Jones said he expects a talented group of underclassmen to turn into a solid squad.
“We have an influx of younger players,” Jones said. “We could end up starting three freshmen and three sophomores this season. We started three freshmen last year.”
The Rams tied for second place in the Heritage Conference with Homer-Center in 2016, a game behind Blairsville.
Jones said he expects this team to grow into a contender by the end of the season.
“I truly believe we're going to get better as the season goes on because of our youth,” Jones said. “We'll be totally different at the end of the season. They'll be pretty special.”
A lot will depend how the pitching performs. The Rams graduated starting pitchers Brian Custer and Tom Sibal, but Jones said the new pitch limit rules will force teams to develop more arms.
He's counting on seniors Tony Hernandez, Hunter Mills, Wyatt Stouffer and Garrett Custer, who Jones described as innings eaters who throws strikes. Sophomores Sullivan Schueltz and John Caldwell and freshman Ethan Boring will also fill out the pitching staff.
“I'm interested to see how the new pitching rules affect teams this season,” Jones said. “If they had to do it, this was the season for us. I have mixed feelings about the pitching rules.”
When Schueltz isn't pitching, he will be playing shortstop. Jones called him a phenomenal defensive player and a nice line drive hitter.
“He made plays last year that were amazing,” Jones said. “He beat some teams with his defense.”
A couple freshmen who are expected to start are catcher Mike Petrof and Boring, who will play third base, and Mike Marinchak, who Jones said is the Rams' version of the Pirates' Josh Harrison.
“Mike can play anywhere for us,” Jones said. “I imagine he would catch if we asked him.”
Other starters back include Mills in center field, Custer in the infield, Nick Nepa at catcher and first base and Stouffer at shortstop.
Catcher Jake Ankeny is out with an ACL injury.
Jones said the success of the Ligonier Junior American Legion program over the past few seasons is starting to pay off.
“We play against a lot of larger schools,” Jones said. “My assistants coached the players and there is not a lot of unfamiliarity because we're running the same system in high school. The learning curve won't be that steep.”
As for the conference, Jones expects Homer-Center and Blairsville to be tough again.
“Our conference is very balanced,” Jones said. “Anybody with the exception of one or two teams can beat anybody on a given day. Marion Center is always a tough team and United is surging. I don't know much about West Shamokin, but I'm sure they'll be tough too.”