North Xtra: Seneca Valley grooming another standout

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Eric Semega has been coaching high school baseball since 1992 in the Western Pennsylvania area and has had his fair share of elite players.

The most recent has been Cory Mazzoni, a former standout at Seneca Valley who will start this season at the Class AAA level with the New York Mets organization.

In a couple of years, Mazzoni may be joined by another Seneca Valley standout in the major leagues.

Connor Coward, last year's North Xtra Player of the Year, had a breakout season. Coward, a senior, went 8-1 with a 1.60 ERA and recorded 80 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched in his first full season on the mound as a junior.

"We saw he had a lot of potential as a sophomore but he got a back injury," Semega said. "At the beginning of last year he stepped right up really early. He had a lot of pitches to complement his fastball. It wasn't surprising but we had to see what he had to offer."

Coward has a fastball that clocks in the lower 90s mph on the radar gun and is complemented by a changeup and his most effective pitch, his curveball.

"There is a fine line with how the coaches call the game," Semega said. "He understands the game and we work to his strengths and where he feels confident. He understands how to pitch and we work well with that together.

"His curveball, I think, is his best weapon. He has very good location. He has a 90 mph fastball. He's a tough kid to hit. He has a lot of weapons. That's exactly what I see in him."

Coward, who was originally a Slippery Rock recruit, signed with Virginia Tech before the season but said he still has a lot to prove.

"He doesn't put himself in the elite category," Semega said. "This is a great opportunity for him. There is a lot of major league scouts looking at him.

"Some pressures are off him because he will be able to play baseball at the next level, but at 17 years old there is always that pressure. I have never seen a change in his demeanor. He approaches it the same way, day by day and game by game."

Coward has proven to be effective with the bat as well, and the Raiders are going to need his stick in the lineup if they want to repeat last year's success.

"He is a very good baseball player," Semega said. "We need his stick in the lineup. He can play first base so we don't take too much of a toll on his arm. We need to see what is most beneficial not only to him but to the team, so we can make it to the postseason."

The Raiders made it to the WPIAL Class AAAA title game last year but lost to North Allegheny, 4-2. Coward and the Raiders had a chance to redeem themselves in the PIAA playoffs but fell short again, losing to the Tigers by an identical 4-2 score.

"He absolutely was the main reason [for the team's success], not to take anything away from anyone else, but he shut down a lot of teams in our way," Semega said. "If we don't have him last year, I don't know if we go that far."

Even with the disappointing finish, the Raiders aren't using last year's loss as their sole motivation for this season.

"Each year we have our own motivations," Semega said. "We have been successful in past years. Our motto this year is: 'Why not?' We have a good focus and physically I think we are just as good as years past.

"It is just a matter of handling the pressure. It wasn't a good feeling last year [losing twice to arch-rival North Allegheny in the postseason], but you can't dwell on the past. You just have to move on."

For Coward, the probability of getting drafted out of high school is higher than one may think. In 2013, 32 percent of kids drafted were from high school and as a pitcher, that number increases. Semega agrees that it could happen, but Coward and most kids would benefit from going to college.

"I have been around this area coaching since 1992," Semega said. "I do believe a lot of kids from Western Pennsylvania will benefit from college first. Cory [Mazzoni] went to N.C. State and look where he is. Connor is talented enough. College isn't a bad thing, but he is talented enough."

The Raiders were off to a 1-2 start this season before Wednesday's scheduled non-section game against Pine-Richland. The Raiders defeated Mt. Lebanon, 5-2, but lost to Hampton, 8-2, and Moon Area, 9-6, on Tuesday.

As for right now, all Coward is looking to do is find a way to get outside and pitch in a game whenever Mother Nature will allow it.

"This is the first year in 10 years we hadn't taken a ground ball on a field before our first game," Semega said. "We need to get some type of competition."

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