Unlike the previous two seasons, no Class AAAA team will enter the WPIAL baseball playoffs with an undefeated record.
Pine-Richland came pretty darned close, though.
The Rams will be among the favorites to win the WPIAL championship when the postseason gets underway next week. They own a 15-4 record, with the four defeats coming by a combined five runs. That's not bad at all, considering the Rams fell short of making the playoffs a year ago.
It's been an excellent bounce-back season for Pine-Richland, which will take part in the postseason for the fourth time in five years. The Rams, coached by Kurt Wolfe, shared the Section 4 championship with Shaler Area.
"We felt pretty confident about the kids we had back," Wolfe said. "We had a lot of core kids back. We returned five starters, which is quite a bit for us. That was the most we've returned since I became the head coach in 2007. We felt that with the leadership and experience we had back, we could have a good season."
Wolfe's bunch has done a lot of damage at the plate, and that formidable offense has played perhaps the most significant role in the success. Pine-Richland averages about nine runs per game, which is one of the top marks in Class AAAA. The Rams have scored at least 11 runs eight times and at least seven runs on six other occasions.
"The kids have had a great approach," Wolfe said. "They make the pitcher make mistakes. They make the pitcher work. But whenever that fastball is there, they'll sit on it and drive it. We're averaging 18 baserunners a game. We try to get on base and try to create things with the way we handle the bat."
Pine-Richland has four players hitting better than .400. The quartet makes up the top of the batting order: senior second baseman David Laylock, junior third baseman/pitcher Jamie Switalski, junior shortstop Daane Berezo and senior outfielder Shane Heim.
Berezo is considered to be one of the top juniors in the WPIAL. He has been hitting better than .500 all season and is excellent defensively. Berezo's brother, Matt, plays for Duke. Matt was named the Post-Gazette's player of the year after leading Pine-Richland to the WPIAL Class AAA championship his senior season in 2010.
Wolfe cited Monday's 8-7 win against Upper St. Clair as an example of why Berezo is such an outstanding player. Berezo had a very unusual stat line: 0 for 0 with two sacrifice bunts and two sacrifice flies. With the score tied, 7-7, in the seventh, Switalski singled, Berezo bunted him over to second, and senior outfielder Shea Sullivan followed with the winning RBI single.
"A lot of things [make Berezo special]," Wolfe said. "His baseball IQ, his knowledge of the game and his ability to be a huge, unselfish player. He's a five-tool kid and he'll do whatever it takes to help the team."
Senior left-hander Marcus Colella and Switalski, a right-hander, are Pine-Richland's top two starting pitchers. Wolfe said Colella does a great job of keeping hitters off-balance with an excellent changeup. Senior left-hander Matt McCarthy has also been a key contributor.
According to Wolfe, Switalski also locates the ball well and throws a little harder than Colella. The Rams have shut out four opponents and have held four others to one run.
Meanwhile, Wolfe is setting a great example for his young players as he continues to battle colon cancer. He was diagnosed with the disease in 2009, but that hasn't stopped him from coaching.
He will be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in June when he receives the Courage Award, an honor named after former Freedom Area High School athlete John Challis.
Wolfe hopes his team's season continues into June. Pine-Richland's only losses were at Woodland Hills, 1-0, at North Allegheny, 10-8, and at Shaler, 8-7. A win against Shaler would have given Pine-Richland the section title outright.
The Rams have lost a few heartbreakers, but they have also won nine games decided by four runs or fewer.
Wolfe said it's games like those that have put his team in a good position to succeed down the road.
"We've had some close games that allow you to be battle tested and playoff ready," Wolfe said. "Those games define your season and they really get you ready for the playoffs."