Players adjust for Wooden Bat Classic
For a couple of hundred high school baseball players, the familiar clank of their aluminum bat will be replaced by the crack of a wooden bat as area teams make the switch in the Wooden Bat Classic Friday through Sunday.
The double-elimination tournament, organized by Serra baseball coach Brian Dzurenda, will bring together 16 teams in two age brackets. The event was founded five years ago with just a 15-16 age group. This year a 17-18 age bracket was added.
The games will be played at four locations, including South Allegheny High School and Manor Baseball Complex in Liberty Boro, and Helen Richey Field and James Long Field in McKeesport.
'It's a completely different game,' Dzurenda said of using wooden bats. 'You have to have better mechanics to hit with a wooden bat. They say that on an aluminum bat the sweet spot is 16 inches long, while on a wooden bat that same hitting surface is only four to six inches long. You can't get away with being a lazy swinger with a wooden bat.'
Teams competing in the 15-16 age bracket include Norwin, Elizabeth Forward, Upper St. Clair, Greensburg Central Catholic, Quaker Valley, Mansfield, Ohio, a Beaver Valley all-star team and a team made up from players from Serra, South Allegheny and McKeesport.
First-round games begin tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. with the tournament championship at noon on Sunday.
'We decided that we needed to get our younger guys - freshman and sophomores - together to play during the summer,' Dzurenda said. 'Most of the kids haven't had any experience playing with a wooden bat. Many of the kids don't even know how to hold one with the emblem facing them.'
Dzurenda said that - to the surprise of most players - the tournament's games are very low scoring. Only three games have been decided by the 10-run rule and only one home run was hit out of the 315-foot field last year.
'You don't see a lot of shots to the gaps or long home runs,' Norwin coach Doug Aftanas said. 'Some of that is due to the tough pitching, but most of it is the wooden bats.
Aftanas, who is entering his fourth season as coach at Norwin, will be taking a team to the 15-16 age bracket for the second year.
'From a coaching standpoint you really have to reinforce the basics of hitting,' Aftanas said. 'Players that aren't using the proper mechanics can sometimes slide by with an aluminum bat, but it really shows when they switch to the wooden.'
'We use this tournament as a kickoff to the next school year. We try to get the kids reacquainted to playing after having the summer off.'
During the offseason, Norwin uses wooden bats in practice to both improve hitting and to add a unique twist for the players.
'Using the wooden bats makes it a little more interesting,' Aftanas said. 'The wooden bats are more attractive to the players because they are what these kids might get to use after high school. Wooden bats have become the buzzword around baseball. Using them makes you a little nostalgic.'
The tournament was originally created to give underclassmen a place to play during in the summer. Dzurenda said recent interest by juniors and seniors led to this year's addition of the older bracket.
'During the first year, it was like pulling teeth to get teams to come; we only had six,' Dzurenda said, 'but since then, using wooden bats has become the popular thing to do.'
The 17-18 age bracket includes a team from Brooklyn, N.Y. and two all-star teams - Batting Practice, which has players from South Hills, and Basilone's Independent Players, which takes from Springdale and the North Hills. There are also five legion teams being represented from McKeesport, Penn Hills, Elizabeth Forward, Connellsville and Hempfield.
A cash prize - a minimum of $600 - is awarded to the winning coach to be used on the team.
'Of course, you can't give money to the players, but this gives the coaches money to buy equipment of jackets of whatever he thinks the team needs,' Dzurenda said.