West Xtra: New Brighton earns a berth in Class AA playoffs

HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL


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For coach Mickey Campbell, the idea of his New Brighton High School baseball team competing in the WPIAL Class AA playoffs is shiny new.

"This is my third year as the team's coach, and it's our first trip to the playoffs [in his tenure]," Campbell said. "It's a great feeling, and I've had a lot of fun watching the players express themselves."

The oldest players on this team were seventh-graders when the Lions last went to the playoffs in 2008. That journey, however, was a short one as New Brighton lost a preliminary-round game to Riverview, 4-3.

This year's team, though, hopes to make up for lost time with an impressive combination of hitting and defense.

Going into Monday's final regular-season game against section opponent Freedom Area -- a 5-0 victory to close the regular season -- New Brighton was hitting .342 as a team. The Lions posted an overall record of 13-4 and a Section 1-AA mark of 11-3, good for second place behind Quaker Valley, which was undefeated going into Wednesday's game against Seton-LaSalle.

Three Lions were hitting better than .400 with Tyler St. Esprit, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior pitcher/outfielder, leading the way with a .463 average. Jake Debo, a 5-10, 165-pound senior pitcher/outfielder, is hitting .449, and Riley Smith, a 6-0, 190-pound junior center fielder, is hitting .426.

"He's is hitting third for us," Campbell said of Debo, who has five doubles, 15 RBI and a team-leading four stolen bases. "He's a good contact hitter, and he hits with power. He's a clutch player whether he's on the mound or at bat. He's a knowledgeable baseball player, and the kids feed off that and his intensity."

St. Esprit has been hitting in either the fourth or fifth slot in the Lions' batting order and leads the team with 18 RBIs. He also has pounded two home runs. He's shown some versatility in playing either middle infield or left field.

Smith, who throws right-handed but bats lefty, sets the table for New Brighton as the team's leadoff hitter. He's hit one home run and driven in eight runs. He also plays a key position defensively in center field.

"Riley is very quick," Campbell said. "He has the advantage of coming out of the left-handed batter's box, and he forces some coaches to make some adjustments because of his speed. His on-base percentage is over .500, so coaches and teams have to adapt to him and deal with his abilities.

"Defensively, he runs the show in the outfield. He's the captain of our outfield in center field."

The Lions' other home runs have come from Bob Reina, a 6-3, 170-pound senior catcher/outfielder, who has hit three, and Chuck Zahn, a 6-0, 240 pound senior pitcher/infielder, who has notched two home runs and driven in 11.

Zahn has been one of two solid pitchers for the Lions this season. He has a record of 5-2, while Debo is 5-1. Both are right-handers.

"Chuck commands three pitches real well," Campbell said. "wHe has a good fastball, a good curveball and a change-up. I think his 'out' pitch is his fastball, but I like his changeup more than anything. I can't drill it into his head enough to use the changeup."

Zahn pitched the team's only shutout this season, a 7-0 one-hitter against Freedom in the teams' first meeting this season on April 18. Debo relies more on guile than on a blazing fastball.

"He won't overwhelm you with his fastball, but he has great command of his curveball," Campbell said. "He also has a third pitch where he'll come at you from the side, but his curveball is definitely the one where he gets a lot of groundballs."

Campbell, whose team was swept by Quaker Valley and split with Avonworth, believes Section 1-AA competition adequately prepared his team for the postseason.

"Games in our section are rarely decided early," he said. "There is a lot of talent in 1-AA, and we played each opponent as if it was a state champion. I was pleased with how we approached each game."

Six times this season, the Lions were involved in one-run games, and they won five of them. Campbell believes that will make a big difference in getting his team focused on tournament baseball.

"When you're in games like that, you develop some resiliency, and those close games have done a lot to build team chemistry," the coach said.

"We try to play seven one-inning games with each game. Our approach is to take it one pitch at a time because if you take one pitch off, it could get by you whether you're at the plate or in the field."

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