South Xtra: Steel Valley ends section title drought

HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL


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Before this year, Steel Valley qualified for the WPIAL baseball playoffs the previous two seasons and four of the past five.

This season the Ironmen did the same, while accomplishing something they had not done in nearly two decades -- win a section title.

Steel Valley and Shady Side Academy met Monday at West Field in Munhall with the Class AA Section 4 championship on the line. Steel Valley prevailed, 10-4. With the victory, the Ironmen (12-5, 10-2) nailed down their first title since 1994.

They added some frosting to the title cake the next afternoon, defeating rival West Mifflin Area in a non-section game, 7-5.

"It's hard to put into words," said Steel Valley coach Tim Vickers, who is in his seventh season. "It's a matter of all the hard work the team has put in. To see them succeed at this level is seriously difficult to put into words."

Sophomore Brandon Donovan -- the team's ace on the mound -- said in the hours before the game, he couldn't think about much else.

"I went into school [Monday] knowing this was probably going to be the biggest game of my life," Donovan said.

Donovan responded by striking out 10 over seven innings, while adding two hits and an RBI at the plate. Junior designated hitter Derek Morrison had two hits -- a double and a triple -- and two RBIs.

Steel Valley lost in the first round of the playoffs to the No. 4 seed each of the past two seasons, but the 2013 version of the Ironmen might be better than its two predecessors.

This group has been proficient offensively (hitting .319 as a team) and on the mound (a team ERA of 3.35). They also appear to be playing their best ball of the season at an ideal time. The win against Shady Side Academy along with the one against West Mifflin Tuesday made it seven victories in the past eight games for the Ironmen.

Donovan has burst onto the scene and established himself as one of the top pitchers in Class AA. Donovan, a right-hander, is 6-0 and has struck out 43 in 332/3 innings. Vickers said Donovan has developed a solid slider this season, to go along with a fastball in the low 80s and a tight curveball.

"He's worked really hard," Vickers said. "He goes out and it's almost like playing a video game. You tell him to hit a spot and he hits it."

Morrison, an all-section choice last season, was expected to join Donovan and give the Ironmen a lethal one-two punch. Morrison injured his pitching elbow last summer, however, and underwent Tommy John surgery. Morrison has yet to be cleared to pitch or play in the field, but he's become a big contributor again, this time with his bat. Morrison, the designated hitter, is batting a team-best .477 and is second with 16 RBIs.

"He's done a complete 180 as a hitter," Vickers said. "He has always been a power hitter, but this year he's focused on the little things. He's completely changed his approach. His dad said that if he's only going to be a hitter, then he should be the best possible hitter he can be."

Steel Valley has changed its offensive approach in general, focusing more on short, compact swings and better pitch recognition. It's paid off early and often. The Ironmen began the season by scoring at least nine runs in three of their first four games and currently have four regulars hitting better than .300.

"They saw some early success and that became contagious," Vickers said.

Along with Morrison, the Ironmen have been sparked by Donovan (.417, 16 runs), sophomore first baseman/pitcher Jesse Cantley (.378, 17 RBIs) and junior center fielder Andrew Chuba (.353, 18 runs).

Other starters include junior left fielder Sam Ligeros, senior right fielder Patrick O'Malley, who was the starting quarterback for the Ironmen football squad, junior third baseman Matt Hoesch, senior second baseman Ryan Wissinger, senior catcher Patrick Jobes and junior shortstop Sean McShane.

Chuba, O'Malley, Wissinger and senior Seth Berneburg round out the pitching staff.

Vickers said he likes the approach his players are taking as they enter the postseason.

"It's absolutely right where we want it," he said. "It's a singular approach. They've bought into everything."

hsbaseball


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