When it comes to summer baseball in the Palomino league, North Hills and veteran manager Bob Weider had set the standard for success and consistency for more than a decade.
But last summer, for the first time since joining the Palomino league in 2001, the North Hills team did not qualify for the regional tournament.
"We had set a standard on this baseball team the past 12 years," Weider said. "So last year was very disappointing from that perspective. This year we sort of challenged the team and the players to get back to that standard and get back to regionals."
Things got off to a slow start as North Hills dropped two of its first three games while dealing with a depleted roster because of injuries and vacation.
But soon the team answered the challenge. Through Monday North Hills had won 11 of 12 games to improve to 14-3 overall and 12-3 in the Quad County North League.
"Our pitching has been sporadic but our hitting is really carrying us," Weider said.
The only thing sporadic about Jake Euler's pitching performance last weekend against Cranberry were base runners allowed.
A right-hander, Euler threw a no hitter last weekend against Cranberry. He allowed two walks and hit one batter over seven innings. A recent North Hills graduate, he needed only 90 pitches to record the no-hitter in North Hills' 3-0 win.
Weider attends all North Hills Indians baseball games during the spring but with a mostly younger Palomino team, he did not get to see a lot of his players in action until Palomino baseball started.
"When we started, the core group I did not know very well," Weider said. "The first month or so of our season, we were sort of feeling our way around the lineup. After seeing them play a few games, we have sort of settled into our lineup and we are to the point where I am a lot more comfortable with the hitting and defense."
Weider moved his center fielder to shortstop, his shortstop to second base and his right fielder to center field and inserted a few younger players into the lineup.
Anthony Rizzitano, one of the best athletes on the team, moved from center field to shortstop. Rob Fedorchak (.314 batting average, 16 runs, 10 RBIs and 11 stolen bases) moved from shortstop to second base.
"I think we got them in the right positions," Weider said. "Moving forward, we are going to be fine. We have a million challenges in front of us if we want to get where we want to get, but I am confident we are going to be fine."
The pitching staff is made up of right-handers Euler (5-0, 4.20 ERA), Christian LeJeune (1-0, 3.30 ERA), Alex Bowen (2-0, 3.34 ERA) and Joel Leviere (1-2, 2.84 ERA) and left-hander Jon Costa (1-2, 3.13 ERA). All the pitchers are North Hills graduates except Bowen who is a rising junior.
The winners of each division in the Palomino League advance to play in a championship game next Tuesday. The runner-up gets an automatic bid to regionals while the winner gets an automatic bid to zones. North Hills last reached the zones in 2010.
North Hills played at Mars Thursday and entertains Hampton today before visiting Worthington-Kittanning on Sunday.
The lineup has been anchored by Rizzitano (.371 batting average, 8 stolen bases), first baseman Cameron Lawson (.458 batting average, 14 runs and 15 RBIs), left fielder Sam Quatrini (.250 batting average, 9 runs), third baseman TJ Winkler (.233 batting average, 8 runs) and catcher Thomas Brennan (.220 batting average).
Nate McIntyre is a valuable utility player for North Hills and is batting .185 but has drawn eight walks in only 36 plate appearances to boost his on-base percentage to .361.
The majority of the team were seniors at North Hills in the fall but there is a strong contingent of players who will be returning to the varsity next spring. Rising seniors Mark Hollis (.424 batting average, 11 runs, 12 RBIs), Mason Beudry (.326 batting average, 15 runs) and James Molnar (.400 batting average, 13 runs) start in the outfield and rising junior Kevin Koch (.438 batting average) sees time as a designated hitter.