Burrell baseball surges down stretch to clinch postseason berth
After a 2-1 loss to Shady Side Academy on April 19, the Burrell varsity baseball team stood at a crossroads in its 2017 season.
The Bucs had dropped three straight games and were 2-2 in Section 1-3A play and 3-5 overall.
But instead of falling completely off the course they set for themselves at the start of the season, the players regrouped, recharged and now are surging into the stretch run.
Friday's 6-2 win over East Allegheny was Burrell's fourth in a row overall and third straight in section play. That victory also officially clinched a spot in the WPIAL playoffs for the third year in a row.
“We're still looking to improve every day we get on the field. It's a continual process,” Bucs veteran coach Mark Spohn said.
Burrell, in second place in the section at 5-2, is gearing up for two big home games at Huston Field — Monday against section leader Steel Valley (12-, 7-0) and Wednesday against third-place Shady Side Academy (5-6, 5-3).
The Bucs are looking to avenge the close loss to the Indians as well as a 6-0 setback to Steel Valley on April 12.
“We're excited for these games, but we didn't want to think too much about them before now,” senior Nick Kaminski said. “We had other games we had to take care of first. It's just about taking one game at a time and building confidence.”
Spohn said an improvement in hitting and defense, along with efficient pitching where the hurlers are pitching to contact and not offering too many free passes, has gone a long way toward the recent run of success.
The current win streak started April 21 at home with a 2-1 walk-off against section rival Valley. The Bucs did to the Vikings what Shady Side did to them two days earlier in the 2-1 walk-off loss.
”The Valley game really picked our spirits up and gave us hope that it could be a good season,” senior Dean Edwards said.
Edwards and Valley starter Shawn Demharter both went the distance in that game. Edwards fired eight complete, giving up only three hits, walking none and striking out four.
“(Dean) really trusted his defense behind him,” Spohn said.
Edwards also plated the winning run with a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the eighth. Marshall McKallip led off the inning with a walk and went to second on a wild pitch. With one out, Kaminski reached on an infield single, and sophomore Luke Virag was walked intentionally to set up a force play.
Demharter threw four straight balls to Edwards, and the walk forced in the winning run.
Senior Max Garda, at the top of the lineup, was safe on an infield single in the sixth, and an error brought him all the way around to third. A Virag groundout sent Garda home with Burrell's first run of the game.
“It's always nice to come away with a close win, because we've lost our share of those type games,” Spohn said. “That was huge for the psyche and confidence of the guys.”
Edwards, now 3-1 this season, missed the first three games while recovering from a knee injury. He returned against South Allegheny on April 5 and went six innings with five hits surrendered and eight strikeouts in the 8-0 shutout win.
“It was the first time I missed any games in all my years of baseball because of an injury,” he said “It felt weird just sitting there. I wanted to be out there with my team helping them win.”
Edwards was on his game again Friday against East Allegheny as he pitched another complete game and struck out 12.
Edwards and Virag, also with a record of 3-1, have logged the majority of the innings this season. Spohn said several other capable arms, including junior Drew Cambal and Jake Okapal, have toed the rubber for the Bucs.
Spohn said the position players are preparing to see several top pitchers, including the one they will face in the first round of the playoffs.
“They've been working on hitting faster pitching, learning to get their hands back and getting to the ball quick,” Spohn said. “They are becoming more adapted to that. I told the guys that with being a decent program, we're going to often see the opposing team's best pitcher, and that they needed to get used to it.”