West Xtra: Hopewell's great expectations result in opponents getting the dickens beaten out of them

HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL

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Being a Hopewell High School baseball player brings with it some lofty expectations.

The Vikings have been one of the WPIAL's top programs for years and years, and the pressure to sustain the success and annually be among the area's best teams is always palpable.

Due to circumstances out of their control, the Vikings have had to be more headstrong than normal the past two years.

Fortunately, a large group of talented and focused seniors are carrying on the Hopewell tradition this season.

Hopewell is the top-ranked team in Class AAA and is in the conversation as to who is the best team in the entire WPIAL, regardless of classification.

The Vikings were 15-1 through Tuesday, having already earned at least a share of the Section 1 title.

The Vikings (7-0 in section play) could have won the outright title with a win against West Allegheny on Wednesday. Their only loss this season was to Class AAAA No. 3 Seneca Valley, 9-5.

The Vikings have 13 seniors, many of whom have been important pieces to the program's success for multiple seasons. It's a group that has displayed the type of leadership that all teams covet, but only some possess.

"They've been around the program," said first-year coach Mike Shuleski, who was the pitching coach last season and formerly the freshman team coach. "A lot of them have been playing varsity or JV since they were freshmen. We have a lot of multiple letter-winners. The experience is there and the leadership is there."

Shuleski has done an excellent job after becoming the team's third coach in as many seasons. Longtime coach Joe Colella died of a heart attack in September 2011. Joe Rubino took over last season and helped Hopewell reach the WPIAL semifinals, but was removed from the position after one season after being charged with having inappropriate contact with female students.

On a typical spring afternoon, Hopewell starts either seven or eight seniors, depending on who is pitching. All but one of their primary pitchers are seniors.

Many of those players are hitting the proverbial cover off the ball. Hopewell averages nine runs per game and has scored at least five runs in every contest.

"If you're looking statistically, we have two guys batting around .280 and everyone else is over .300," said Shuleski. "We have a few guys over .400 and one is over .500. The nice thing as a coach is that from top to bottom, all of them are capable of getting on base and driving in runs."

When the Post-Gazette compiled its WPIAL statistical leaders last week (through games played April 21), the list was Hopewell-heavy. Two of the stars have been the team's No. 4 and 5 hitters, senior second baseman Logan Johnston and senior first baseman Tim Hughes. Johnston was hitting .487 with three home runs, 19 RBIs and 16 runs. Hughes was hitting .486 with three home runs and 20 RBIs.

"If we get any of the first three guys on, the hope is that [Johnston and Hughes] are there to drive them in," Shuleski said.

What helps is that those first three guys are indeed typically on base. Senior shortstop Ryan Cox is hitting .477 with 16 runs, senior third baseman Arion Sepp has scored 17 runs, and senior center fielder Stefan Mrkonja has scored 15 runs.

Senior pitcher/designated hitter Clayton Covalt bats sixth, followed by senior left fielder Joe Kunzmann, junior catcher Austin Mike and junior right fielder Shane Martin. Senior Steve Yoho often starts in left field.

Covalt has been the biggest standout on what is a superb and deep pitching staff.

"He's really been our horse," Shuleski said.

Covalt, a right-hander, began the season 4-0, and junior right-hander Mitch Bufalini started 3-0. Mrkonja, a left-hander, gives the Vikings three solid starting pitchers.

As it currently stands, Hopewell is a playoff qualifier, section champion and one of the favorites to win the WPIAL championship.

Shuleski, though, doesn't want his veteran team to stare into the rearview mirror or gaze too far ahead.

"The expectations are that we control what we do," Shuleski said. "They control their effort. We approach each game like it's the most important one."

hsbaseball


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