South Xtra: South Park advances to title game


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In terms of playoff history, WPIAL Class AAA finalists Hopewell and South Park don't have much in common.

The Vikings have won three WPIAL championships (1979, 2000, 2010), and have reached at least the district semifinals each of the past three seasons.

South Park, meanwhile, will be playing in its first WPIAL championship game since 2002 and is looking for its first district title. They will meet at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Consol Energy Field in North Franklin, just ouitside of Washington.

But while their histories differ, the Vikings and Eagles are very similar this season.

Hopewell (20-3) trots out eight senior starters, while South Park (23-0) has four players who have started all four years and another two who are three-year starters.

"We have a special group of kids," said Mike Shuleski, who was promoted from assistant to head coach of the Vikings this season.

"I've known most of these kids since they've been in seventh or eighth grade and seen them grow. There are different situations in the game that usually us coaches have to tell the players what to do or where to be, but they are taking that into their own hands this season."

Many of Hopewell's starters played roles in the Vikings trips to the semifinals in 2011 and '12. Both seasons, Hopewell lost in the semifinals and consolation finals, failing to qualify for the PIAA Class AAA tournament.

But on Tuesday, the Vikings clinched a state tournament berth by beating West Allegheny, 4-0, in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals.

"We preached all season to treat every game like it's the most important, so that way we are already playing the way we need to play at this point in the season," Shuleski said.

Hopewell has one of the best hitting teams in the WPIAL, scoring at least nine runs 12 times this season.

But it's been the pitching that has been Hopewell's best asset this season, especially in the playoffs.

Senior right-hander Clayton Covalt pitched a four-hitter in Hopewell's 1-0 first-round win against Derry Area, then came back in the semifinals to pitch another four-hit shutout against West Allegheny. Covalt is 7-1 on the season with an earned-run average of less than 2.00.

Shuleski will have a tough decision to make for the championship game on whether he wants to throw Covalt or the Vikings' other top pitcher, left-hander Stefan Mrkonja.

"We'll see," Shuleski said. "We'll probably make that decision next week. Either way, it's not a bad decision."

Similarly, South Park has its options on who will start the WPIAL final.

Randy Dobnak (8-0) hurled five shutout innings in the Eagles' 1-0 win Tuesday against Keystone Oaks. In two postseason starts, he has allowed just two hits and no runs. But the Eagles also have Nick Yobbi, who is 6-0 this season and finished among the WPIAL leaders during the regular season in strikeouts.

South Park also has its single-season record-holder in saves in Jake Bywalski waiting in the wings.

"We'll sit down this week and throw some things around and our staff will figure out who we want to go with," South Park coach Steve Bucci said. "Meanwhile, I'm going to the closet and see if we can find some more runs."

The Eagles scored just one run on two hits in the semifinals against Keystone Oaks, but they were facing one of the best pitchers in the WPIAL in Jared Skolnicki, a Kent State recruit.

Offense hasn't been a problem for South Park the rest of the season. The Eagles have scored double-digit runs on 12 occasions this season and have four players -- Yobbi, catcher Justin Dilla, shortstop Chris Winkler and first baseman Shane Fetsko -- who batted better than .450 in the regular season.

Yobbi, Winkler and Dilla, as well as Dobnak, are four-year starters. They had to go through two losing seasons before taking the Eagles to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2006.

"Sometimes the experience of losing can help you," Bucci said. "But I also think the coaches laid down the law and our players came in and put in the work in the offseason. They began to believe in one another."

And they will present quite a challenge next week for the Vikings.

"We know they have a couple guys who throw lights out on the mound, we know they have four guys batting over .450 and we know they haven't lost a game," Shuleski said.



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