West Xtra: 'Best season' ends for mighty Blackhawk

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The mood on the long bus ride home from Hollidaysburg was far from gloomy for the Blackhawk High School baseball team Monday.

Laughing and joking around could be heard on the other end of the telephone.

Maybe not what you'd expect from a team that just had its season end -- and had it end one step short of a state championship game appearance, at that.

That ending, disappointing as it was, did little to tarnish what Cougars coach Bob Amalia called "probably the best team in school history."

"We're proud of these kids and what they accomplished," Amalia said. "It's a great group of team players."

The WPIAL Class AAA champion Cougars lost, 8-1, to West York Monday in the PIAA semifinals. That was only the team's third loss in 25 games and first defeat since April 27, a span of 10 games.

In between, Blackhawk sewed up the Section 1-AAA title and won the WPIAL championship in addition to advancing to the western final of the PIAA tournament.

"It was a blast," outfielder Steve O'Hara said. "I had an awesome time my senior year with my teammates. We had a good run."

Defensively, it was an amazing postseason run. Blackhawk did not allow a run in the WPIAL playoffs, winning all three games by identical 1-0 scores. After receiving a bye, the Cougars finally allowed a run in their first PIAA tournament game, beating Thomas Jefferson, 6-1.

"We got tremendous pitching in game 1 from Adam Rousseau and from Brendan [McKay] in the other games," Amalia said. "It was an amazing high school baseball team to be around. We could have won this one and lost in the state championship and I'd feel the same way. These kids did a great job and had a great year."

Blackhawk set a school record for victories in a season. This was the fourth time the Cougars had advanced to the PIAA semifinals under Amalia, who has been the team's head coach since 2000.

"I think this particular team was probably the best in school history," Amalia said. "The other times we got to the western final, we didn't win the WPIAL [title]. So this was the first team to win the WPIAL and get to the western final."

Monday was the final high school game for 13 seniors listed on Blackhawk's roster. Eight started and 10 regularly contributed during games.

The group won four section titles and went a combined 67-17.

"It was a great bunch of kids to work with," Amalia said. "They always came to practice and practiced hard. They picked each other up. That's the kind of kids you want to coach and who will be successful."

Six Cougars seniors plan to play in college -- catcher Matt Emge (Ohio State), pitcher/outfielder Rousseau (undecided), shortstop Tyler Craig (undecided), O'Hara (Muskingum), second baseman Joe Lopez (Clarion) and pitcher/outfielder Brad Verlihay (undecided).

Brandon Mansell served as the designated hitter, Nick Martin started in the outfield, third baseman Brendan Kearney batted leadoff and Zach Hildebrand was regularly used as a courtesy runner.

"It's been once in a lifetime being part of this class," O'Hara said. "We've been together since we were 10 years old, all the seniors ... We just have a great chemistry together.

"At [Colt League] we won the championship -- and we've been successful at different levels. We've been sticking together, and that's what's helped give us an edge on other teams."

It's an accomplished group of seniors that will be difficult to replace. Blackhawk enters next season with a mere two major contributors from this season's team. But one of them provides an awfully good centerpiece.

McKay went 9-1 with an 0.52 ERA as a sophomore as well as hitting for a team-high .416 with a team-high 13 extra-base hits.

Also, Cole Chiappialle was a defensive stalwart in center field as a junior.

"Brendan will be back, and we've got an outstanding sophomore class that will be juniors next year and fill in with the seniors next year," Amalia said. "Obviously, Brendan is a great guy to build your team around, and I think we should have a pretty good team next year.

"Baseball, you never know. But we've got a lot of good young kids coming up. They've got big shoes to fill, but I think they'll be up for it."



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