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Unity Legion team caps season in District 31 opening round

| Tuesday, July 14, 2015, 4:06 p.m.
Unity's Nick Palombo attempts to tag out Latrobe's Josh Verchuck during the American Legion District 31 playoffs on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 at Legion Keener Park in Latrobe. Latrobe won 3-2.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Unity's Nick Palombo attempts to tag out Latrobe's Josh Verchuck during the American Legion District 31 playoffs on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 at Legion Keener Park in Latrobe. Latrobe won 3-2.
Latrobe's Nick Robl tags out Unity's Doug Cengia during the American Legion District 31 playoffs on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 at Legion Keener Park in Latrobe. Latrobe won 3-2.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Latrobe's Nick Robl tags out Unity's Doug Cengia during the American Legion District 31 playoffs on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 at Legion Keener Park in Latrobe. Latrobe won 3-2.

In the midst of a late-season slide, Unity Legion baseball coach Ed Guzik was hopeful it wasn't too late for his team to find its identity.

While the two-time defending champions were eliminated in the first round of the District 31 playoffs this year, it's never too early to establish one for the following season.

“We struggled a bit with our pitching and defensively, which is uncharacteristic,” Guzik said. “Anytime you play a good team, they are going to take advantage of that.”

The major issue entering the season was how Unity would replace two college-level aces in Josh Keefe and Ray Sowinski.

While Rick Ross held down the front end, and Tyler Kuhns stepped into a starting role, the rotation had not fully materialized. But late in the season, the potential of other players gave hope for the future, particularly third baseman Doug Cengia and outfielder Kenny Stas.

“Doug really stepped up pitching this year and became our ace,” outfielder Vince Guerrieri said.

Guzik liked what he got out of him enough to start him in a playoff game. It was a role Cengia, a team leader and starting third baseman, did not anticipate.

“I definitely wasn't expecting to start this year,” Cengia said. “I think I surprised myself (with my performance). We didn't have the pitching (this year) we had in the past.”

The arms could be there again with Kuhns, Cengia and Stas forming a foundation for next year's rotation.

“Kenny started a game this year and pitched really well,” Cengia said.

While the team got off to a solid start, it hit a late-season skid and backed into the playoffs at 10-14, where it was swept in two games by cross-Route 30 rival Latrobe.

As the Unity pitching took a step back, so did the defense behind it. Guzik thinks it was an uncharacteristic trait he hopes is corrected.

“It was just one thing led to another,” he said.

Guerrieri agreed.

“Frustration kind of set in the second half of the season,” he said. “We were pushing it, trying to do too much and make a big play, and we kind of let the game play us. When we played solid ‘D,' we hung around with some good teams.”

Unity also pressed at the plate, and both players agreed leaving runners on base, particularly in tight games, was an issue that has to be addressed.

“We need to improve on timely hitting,” Cengia said. “We could never get them.”

“You can't get nervous and not play to your potential,” Guerrieri added. “We had a lot of new people this year, and I think they realized what level of play you need to perform at this level.”

Some of those ills can be cured from within, as starting shortstop Luke Ferlin was lost to a knee injury but will return next season. Kuhns, who filled in at shortstop likely will move to second base.

Unity will return plenty of starters in the field, including Guerrieri, Cengia, Ferlin, Kuhns, Stas and Jake Stemrick.

“The kids did some good things near the end and the pitchers got a little better,” Guzik said. “We have a good nucleus intact.”

“We showed some good signs and played together as a team,” Cengia said. “It was definitely a rebuilding year.”

If a rebuilding year for Unity Legion is still a playoff squad that sits at the top half of the District 31 standings, a little improvement in 2016 could go a long way.

Devon Moore is a freelance writer.

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