It is amazing what winning a section championship can do for a program.
Last year, Steel Valley got the monkey off their back by winning its first baseball section title since 1994.
"It seems like there is a better work ethic this year," Ironmen coach Tim Vickers said. "We have been preaching non-stop about avoiding complacency. They seem to have really bought into it this time.
"I thought last year was more of a transition to that mindset and they understand it this year. They know what to expect this year."
A big reason for the Ironmen's success last year was the emergence of sophomore pitcher Brandon Donovan. Donovan served as the ace of the staff and led the Ironmen with a 10-strikeout performance in the game that decided the section title against Shady Side Academy. He recorded 43 strikeouts in 33 innings.
"He had a monster year," Vickers said. "He emerged as one of the better pitchers in our section. I put the ball in his hands and felt extremely confident that we were going to win that game."
Although Donovan has yet to take the mound in a game situation this year, Vickers has been impressed with his progression from last year.
"He works fast," Vickers said. "He throws on a downward plane. He keeps players off balance with his curveball. He is always hitting his spots. He came in for his first bullpen session and he was perfect on his first nine spots. The catcher didn't even move his glove. We haven't seen it live yet but he has acquired quite a slider to the repertoire."
Donovan also served as one of the leading hitters in the Ironmen's lineup last year with a .417 average and scored 16 runs.
Donovan will have plenty of help from his teammates in the pitching rotation, especially with the return of Derek Morrison. Morrison batted .477 last year with 16 RBIs but was limited to being a designated hitter while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Morrison has been cleared to pitch and did so for the Ironmen in a preseason scrimmage against Vincentian.
"That was his first time facing an opponent," Vickers said. "He has been throwing in live bullpen. I was a little bit more nervous than he was.
"He was a slightly better version than his old self. He relied on being effectively wild before the injury. He was a lot more precise on his fastball and slider. The slider has a tighter break. He has worked on his mechanics and keeping things tight and it shows."
Also vying for innings is junior Jesse Chantley.
"We are going to have a hard time giving guys their innings and it is a good problem to have," Vickers said. "We need to keep kids fresh and I am looking forward to dealing with it."
The Ironmen are returning seven starters from last year and are hoping to build on last year's success.
"Our goal is nothing different from when I got here," Vickers said. "It is to get better day by day. One of the main things we focused on last year is how you approach your goals. There are processes to get there.
"Last year we said we need to win that inning. This year we are breaking it down to win that pitch. You only have control of the next thing in front of you. If you accomplish that, everything else falls in place. You have to take care of the little things first and hope the big things happen."
It was a long journey for the Ironment to get to WPIAL contender status, but they believe they are there to stay for the forseeable future. Winning the section title gave them confidence, but they know that territory comes with a price.
"Winning the section gave us confidence," Vickers said. "It put a big target on our back. We have been clawing and scratching to get to the elite level.
"I'm sure everyone is going to do everything in their power to stop us, but we are going to continue our approach and hopefully it will all work out if we do that."