South Xtra: Thomas Jefferson's finest season ends in PIAA quarterfinal

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Four years ago, the forecast was steadily gloomy for the Thomas Jefferson High School baseball team.

In one of their final "tune-ups" for the season, the Jaguars lost a scrimmage to Chartiers Valley.

The score? 29-0.

Fast forward to last Thursday, and some of the players who had taken some lumps their freshman season were still playing high school baseball -- this, one week into June -- and found themselves just two wins away from playing for a state championship.

Those once-dreary days have since been replaced by plenty of sunny skies.

One of the best seasons in school history came to an end last Thursday for Thomas Jefferson, which lost to Blackhawk in the PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals.

The defeat did nothing to take away from the accomplishments of a team that had a terrific spring, to say the least. The achievements were many.

Thomas Jefferson, which finished 17-6, won the Section 3-AAA section title outright with an 11-3 record. They reached the postseason for the third year in a row, advancing to the WPIAL semifinals. Then, after winning the third-place consolation game, the Jaguars not only qualified for the PIAA playoffs for the first time, but also earned their first PIAA victory.

"It was a memorable year, one they should be proud of," said Jaguars coach Rich Krivanek.

Krivanek couldn't have been more proud of a pitching staff that stifled the opposition. The Jaguars surrendered two runs or fewer 13 times and were especially dominant late in the season. In a six-game stretch that included the final three games of the regular season and three WPIAL playoff games, the Jaguars allowed only three runs total.

Those numbers, of course, were in large part due to the excellence of senior right-hander Greg Schneider, who was one of the most dominant pitchers in the state. Schneider, a Pitt recruit, finished 9-2 with a 0.55 ERA and had 140 strikeouts in 812/3 innings. Schneider struck out at least 10 in nine of his 12 starts, including 18 against West Mifflin and 17 against Hampton in the playoffs. He gave up only five earned runs all season.

"Greg was fantastic in every facet," Krivanek said. "He gets so much publicity as a pitcher, but he hit over .500 (.521) and led us in RBIs (30) and runs (29). We have 15 great players, but there's just something about Greg.

"When it's game day, he's focused and brings everybody to another level. It was really fun to watch. He's a special player. It's going to be a long time before we see someone come around who's done what he's done."

Fellow senior Joe Shaffer (4-0) gave the Jaguars a strong No. 2 option, while Sean Saputo, another senior, chipped in two wins.

The offense, in addition to Schneider, was highlighted by the play of sophomore Joe McHugh (.406, 22 RBIs, 20 runs), Shaffer (.389, 20 RBIs), senior Ryan Ruffing (.359, 16 runs) and senior Bruno Natter (.353, 13 RBIs, 15 runs).

One of the biggest victories of the season came in a 1-0, 11-inning, playoff triumph against Hampton. The Talbots had knocked the Jaguars out of the playoffs the previous two seasons (2011 quarterfinals, 2010 first round).

"The most fun was beating Hampton," said Krivanek. "It was pure emotion because they beat us the past two years. We couldn't help but dog-pile on the mound afterward."

Two of the most memorable games came in losses to Blackhawk -- 1-0 in the WPIAL semifinals and 6-1 in the PIAA quarterfinals. Both were exceptionally played and pitched games, ultimately won by the Cougars.

"I think we all would [love to get another shot at Blackhawk], but I've seen [Blackhawk pitcher Brendan] McKay on the mound and he's fabulous," Krivanek said. "It wasn't anything we did or didn't do. They're just an awesome baseball team."

The second loss against Blackhawk came three days after the Jaguars earned their first PIAA playoff win, 4-2, against District 10 champion Warren.

It was a monumental game for Thomas Jefferson, whose outlook for additional success gets brighter by the day.



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