When Hopewell American Legion manager Dave Denniston finally had the opportunity to organize his team for this summer and finalized the condensed Legion schedule, he had a simple message for his players.
"I hope you like baseball," Denniston told his group.
The Hopewell High School varsity team had just finished a deep playoff run that included a trip to the WPIAL Class AAA championship game and a trip to the PIAA first round that extended their high school season to June 3.
Many other Beaver County League American Legion teams had already begun playing in May.
With various WPIAL all-star games and showcases the weekend of June 8-9, Hopewell was not able to start American Legion play until June 10.
From June 10 to June 24 Hopewell played 13 games. Take for instance the team's schedule the week of June 17.
Hopewell played Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and played doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday.
The team is hardly worse for the wear, however. Through those first 13 games Hopewell was 10-3 and in second place in the East Division behind Ambridge-Baden (12-2).
Not only is liking baseball a prerequisite to play for this Hopewell team but so is the ability to pitch. Nearly every player on the team can be called upon to pitch.
Clayton Covalt, a recent Hopewell graduate who emerged as the top pitcher for the Vikings down the WPIAL postseason stretch, has been the top pitcher for the Legion team. A right-handed pitcher, he fired a complete game three-hitter against a loaded Blackhawk team on Monday night.
"He is a bulldog," Denniston said. "He does not give in. Clayton has a sneaky fastball and his location is phenomenal. He has a changeup that he throws for strikes and a curve he can throw for strikes that sets it up for his fastball. He really knows how to use his pitching arsenal -- he is a pitcher not a thrower.
"Every time he is on the mound he gives us a chance to win. He is the type of pitcher whom the kids support. I cannot say enough about Clayton."
Another recent Hopewell graduate, Stefan Mrkonja, has had a solid summer for Hopewell so far. He sustained an injury late in the high school season but has bounced back to be a top pitcher in the Beaver County League.
Mrkonja is a left-handed pitcher so is another 2013 Hopewell graduate, pitcher Joe Kunzmann. Other pitchers included right-handers, seniors Mitchel Bufalini, Shane Martin and Logan Johnston.
Denniston inherits six of nine starters from the Hopewell Vikings varsity team that finished the scholastic season 20-5. The Vikings lost, 4-3, to South Park in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game at Consol Energy Park.
The only positions that needed to be filled for the Legion team were first base, shortstop and catcher. Jordan Sabo, a rising senior at Hopewell, and Alec Short, a recent graduate, have been sharing time at first base.
David Roppo, a junior this past school year, stepped up and has taken over at shortstop. He started on junior varsity at Hopewell and saw some playing time on the varsity.
Nate Steele, a 2012 Hopewell graduate who was red-shirted this past season at California University of Pennsylvania, has returned to start at catcher.
Last summer in Denniston's first season as Hopewell Legion manager, the team won the Beaver County championship to reach the regionals.
This season metal bats are banned in Pennsylvania American Legion baseball. The top hitters in the Hopewell lineup have been Mrkonja, Johnston, Martin and third baseman/pitcher Arion Sepp, another 2013 Hopewell graduate.
Martin and Mrkonja start in right and center field, respectively, when they are not pitching. Johnston plays most of the time at second base but he can play multiple positions.
"Logan is just one of those kids you have to watch play. He is unorthodox but he gets the job done," Denniston said. "I don't know how to explain Logan. I have never seen him catch but I have seen him play every other position on the field and play it with ability. He is not out of place anywhere."
Hopewell plays its home games at Hopewell High School's Joe Colella Field. It is scheduled to play tonight at RiverCity, Friday at Center-Monaca and Sunday at Brighton Township.
First Published June 27, 2013 4:00 AM