North Xtra: Pine-Richland grads finish on high note at Xavier

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The plan for Vinny Nittoli was always to play college football.

A quarterback at Pine-Richland, he had received some interest from colleges prior to his senior season in 2008. But an ankle injury in the Rams' first game that fall cut his season short and scared away college recruiters.

That's when his focus turned from throwing touchdowns to throwing strikes.

Five years later, things seemed to have worked out for the best. After a successful pitching career at Xavier, Nittoli, a 6-foot-2 right-hander, was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 25th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft last week.

But for the first time in some eight years, Nittoli won't have his teammate and friend by his side.

Mitch Elliott played baseball and football with Nittoli at Pine-Richland and followed him to Xavier, where the two played baseball and were roommates for five years. Elliott, an outfielder for Xavier, went undrafted over the weekend but hopes to have an opportunity to play in the Frontier League.

Even though their careers at the next level likely won't land them in the same city, the two can at least relish the fact that they left Xavier on a high note. These two fifth-year seniors helped the Musketeers to their second-ever NCAA tournament appearance, winning the Big East tournament championship in the school's first year in the conference.

"It's been an unbelievable season," Nittoli said. "We hit some rough patches and kind of snuck into the Big East tournament a little bit. Coach doesn't like me to say that, though."

The Musketeers spent much of the season's final weeks with their backs against a wall. Going into the regular season's final game, Xavier needed to beat Creighton or hope Villanova topped Butler to earn a spot in the Big East tournament.

Following a 7-6 loss to the Bluejays, the team picnicked outside while waiting for the results of the game between the Wildcats and Bulldogs.

"We were trying to hold on to hope," Elliott said.

He then remembers one of his coaches coming out of the dugout with his arms triumphantly in the air. Villanova -- which won only five conference games all year -- had beaten Butler. Xavier's season was still alive.

The team packed its gear and headed for the Big East tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. Following a loss in the tournament's opening game to Creighton, Xavier needed to fend off elimination twice before getting revenge against the Bluejays in the championship game.

Nittoli started one game and pitched eight innings in a win against St. John's. Elliott went 8 for 18 with four RBIs and was the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. The team headed to Nashville, Tenn., for the NCAA Regionals, but was eventually eliminated by Oregon despite holding a five-run advantage through seven innings.

"We had the game won," Elliott said. "We had a couple mishaps on defense and it just ended all of a sudden. It kind of got swept out from under our feet. We were more frustrated than upset."

Xavier committed five errors in the 11-8, 10-inning loss. Despite the disappointment, it had been one of the best seasons in school history. For the roommates from Pine-Richland, it was a culmination of five years hard work.

"At first it's hard being away from home for so long," Nittoli said of his college experience. "Having your best friend there helps out so much. Every moment, the ups and downs, we were always there for each other. We always had someone to talk to."

Elliott remembers meeting Nittoli in the Pine-Richland weight room after his family moved to Pine from St. Louis. The two became friends and couldn't have been more thrilled when they realized they could play college ball together.

"That group was very close," Pine-Richland coach Kurt Wolfe said of Elliott and Nittoli's senior class. "As a program, we try to instill a family atmosphere. They were there for each other. That was a heck of a team in 2009."

Pine-Richland reached the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game that season, but lost to North Allegheny. Wolfe kept an eye on Nittoli and Elliott's Xavier careers, as he does with all his players who continue playing at the college level.

"As good as they are baseball players, they're better young men," Wolfe said. "They both earned their way onto Xavier. Vinny has earned his way to an opportunity to play at the next level. It doesn't surprise me he got drafted. I wish them both the best of luck."

Nittoli had been in contact with scouts over the weekend, but still wasn't sure when he would be drafted.

"I was following on Twitter and saw my name pop up," Nittoli said. "It was pretty crazy."

Sean Hammond: or 412-263-1466 and Twitter @sean_hammond.

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