North Xtra: Surprising Shaler at top of baseball standings

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With just a handful of players on its team with previous varsity experience, Shaler Area was bound to struggle mightily this high school baseball season.

Well, that's what some "outside of Shaler's dugout" thought, at least.

"[The expectations of others] were very low," Titans coach Brian Junker said. "The kids were aware of that. I was aware of that. I kind of enjoyed that. We work from September to now. I expect every year to make the playoffs and win the section [title]. I expected that again this year. So far, so good."

Despite having just two returning starters and no senior starters, a young and so-called inexperienced Shaler team has ascended to the top of the Class AAAA Section 4 standings. Heading into Wednesday's section game at Woodland Hills, Shaler (6-6 overall) was tied with Pine-Richland for first place with 4-1 records. The Titans lost at Pine-Richland, 4-0, last Thursday.

You often hear the cliché "One game at a time." Well, Shaler has taken it one step further with its "one pitch at a time" approach.

Junker said one of his team's mottos is "So what ... Next pitch." The Titans don't dwell on a missed opportunity or mistake. They apply their focus on the very next pitch.

"Our kids are really buying into it," Junker said. "Sometimes the kids are down in a game, but they don't care. Nothing matters but the next pitch."

Being such a young team, one would figure Shaler would struggle in games that come down to the wire, but in fact, the exact opposite has taken place. All six of the Titans wins have come by one or two runs. Overall, they are 6-1 in one- or two-run games. They came back from a 4-0 deficit to beat Woodland Hills, 7-5, and rallied from three runs down in the sixth inning to defeat Penn Hills, 4-3.

"It's going to give me heart problems, but as long as we win, it's OK," Junker said.

Junior first baseman Jimmy Hughes and junior third baseman Alec McElroy are the only starters back from last season's team that went 13-8 (7-5 in Section 1) and lost to Central Catholic, 3-2, in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

Hughes, who has a team-high 12 RBIs, has been the rock who has helped lay the foundation and lead to the growth of this Titans team.

"He's a leader and guys look up to him," Junker said. "His average is a little bit down, but we don't focus on batting average. We focus on quality at-bats. He has a lot of quality at-bats. He's a 4.3 grade-point-average type of kid. He's our leader for sure."

Shaler doesn't boast a powerful offense or players with ridiculous batting averages, but the Titans have shown the ability to come through in the clutch and simply score enough runs to win games.

Shaler has hurt opponents with the top third of its batting order. Junior second baseman Justin Mazza bats leadoff and is hitting .344. Sophomore outfielder Andrew Mueller is hitting .355 and is a major threat on the basepaths. Sophomore outfielder Noah Hernandez, the No. 3 hitter, leads the Titans with a .379 average.

Sophomore right-hander Jake Potock heads the pitching staff. Junker said Potock pitched 10 to 15 innings last season. Mazza, a right-hander, has been the No. 2 starter, while freshman right-hander Sam Ireland, who is also the starting shortstop, has gotten most of the save opportunities.

This Titans team isn't exceptional in any one area, however, they've had success in nearly every facet of the game at one time or another. So if they get to the point where they're clicking on all cylinders, they could be an extremely tough team to beat down the stretch.

"We've had some decent starting pitching," said Junker. "Other days we hit the ball around the field well. Other days we run well. Other days we field well. We've yet to put forth a perfect game, but we're getting better. I expect by the end of the season we'll put together a few of those."



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