Last year the West Hempfield American Legion baseball team won the Region 7 championship and advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in program history.
It was a long time coming for coach Bob Stokes, who has managed the team since 1998.
With six starters and two role players back from that squad, the team is getting greedy and not about to wait another 13 years for a return trip to states.
"Of course expectations are high, because you want to repeat and get back there," Stokes said. "The guys really want to get back."
To get back, West Hempfield will have to go through its rival, East Hempfield, in the District 31 semifinals.
The two teams were scheduled to begin a three-game series on Wednesday with game two scheduled for tonight and game three, if necessary, on Friday.
The Hempfield Area School District is split up between the two teams by boundaries. East Hempfield plays its games at Pitt-Greensburg while West Hempfield calls Lint Field near Irwin home.
East Hempfield swept the two-game regular-season series, winning, 10-2 and 8-1.
"We are not afraid of anyone," Stokes said. "Of course, we want to play them, we want to play the best. We have a friendly rivalry."
West Hempfield reached the semifinals by sweeping Kiski in a three-game series. In the first game, West Hempfield rallied from a 4-3 seventh-inning deficit to edge Kiski, 7-6, thanks to a two-run home run by Tyler Lilja. Brennan Rahl pitched a complete game to earn the win.
In the second game West Hempfield once again benefited from late-game home run heroics. An Anthony Fanelli bottom-of-the-fifth-inning grand slam was all the scoring West Hempfield would need in the 4-3 win as left-hander Greg Martin tossed a complete game, including 10 strikeouts.
"We are young but I got eight real good leaders back from last year's team," Stokes said. "Pitching is definitely the strength of the team."
West Hempfield's top pitchers are Rahl (4-3, 3.92 ERA, 40 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched), Martin (2-1, 3.15 ERA, 35 strikeouts), Jared Hensler (4-0, 2.59 ERA) and Nathan Mori (1-2, 6.68 ERA).
Stokes usually calls upon Rahl to pitch against the tough opponents. Ten of the 18 players on the roster have pitched innings this season, including Zack Martinelli, another top arm for West Hempfield.
"We have decent pitching depth," Stokes said.
West Hempfield reached the state playoffs last year without winning the District 31 title. The team lost in the final to Bushy Run but District 31 received two automatic bids to the Region 7 tournament. This year with regional host Latrobe eliminated from the District 31 playoffs and guaranteed a spot in the Region 7 playoffs, West Hempfield would have to win the District 31 playoffs to advance to regionals.
The power of West Hempfield's lineup has surprised Stokes at times. His team has hit 10 home runs, half by Martin who also plays first base when not pitching. Lilja, a third baseman/left fielder is batting .440 with two home runs, nine doubles and 15 RBIs. Mori, a third baseman/shortstop when he is not pitching, is batting a team-high .470 with 26 runs scored. Fanelli, a catcher, is batting .339 with 20 RBIs and Rahl, a shortstop when not pitching, is batting .373.
Rahl, Hensler, Fanelli and Lilja are the four Hempfield High graduates on the team, all the other players will return to Hempfield in the fall. The four graduates all plan to play baseball in college. Lilja will play at Westmoreland County Community College, Hensler at Thiel, Rahl at Pitt-Greensburg and Fanelli will join Stokes at Seton Hill where Stokes is an assistant coach.