West Xtra: South Side Beaver's rebuilding program yields a contender

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It has been quite some time since the South Side Beaver varsity baseball program experienced success.

With winning seasons coming few and far between in Hookstown, it's been 14 years since the Rams last qualified for the WPIAL playoffs.

"We definitely have gone through a rough patch," said Chip Hunter, who has been with the team for the past 12 years, including nine as head coach. "In the past three years, our records really haven't shown how far we've come."

After winning a total of only five games from 2009-11, including a winless season in '09, the Rams posted a winning record by going 8-7 overall last season. They, however, missed out on the playoffs by just one game following a 7-7 showing in Section 1-AA.

This season, however, South Side Beaver appears to be a contender following an encouraging 7-1 start, including a 4-1 record against section opponents before Wednesday's scheduled game at Seton-LaSalle. The Rams entered this week ranked No. 4 in Class AA by the Post-Gazette.

"It's really been a combination of everything," Hunter said. "We've had some outstanding pitching efforts and some games where our bats really came around.

"Defensively, we may not have been perfect, but we haven't given up any costly errors that led to giving up a big inning."

After non-section wins against Western Beaver, Cornell and Burgettstown Area, the Rams went on to knock off section foes Seton-LaSalle, Quaker Valley and Brentwood. Their six-game winning streak, though, was snapped last Friday following a 2-1 eight-inning loss to Avonworth.

This shaped up as an important week for the Rams with four section games scheduled to be played in four days.

They defeated Carlynton, 3-2, on Monday, but Tuesday's game against Freedom Area was postponed due to inclement weather. They were scheduled to play Seton-LaSalle Wednesday and New Brighton today.

"I'm very proud of how we've played so far," Hunter said. "We play in a tough section, so to be in the position we're in this early in the season is exciting."

Seniors Nolan Lamont and Dustin Lander have been the Rams' top starting pitchers. Lamont, a right-hander, also plays shortstop, while the left-handed Lander plays in the outfield when he's not on the mound.

Hunter also has been impressed with the efforts from other seniors, infielder/outfielder Walter Riggs, catcher Hunter Beaumont and pitcher/outfielder Ethan Conti.

"We're happy with our senior leadership," Hunter said. "They're helping everyone stay focused with what they need to do. Effort-wise, we're battling through every pitch until the end of the game.

"Wins and losses are still up in the air, but we're definitely seeing this group play hard."

Sophomore third baseman Kyle McLaughlin and freshman infielder/outfielder Jared Conti, who is Ethan's younger brother, also have earned starting jobs.

"It's really been a team effort," Hunter said. "Everybody has contributed and done their part. If the top of our order struggles, the rest of the lineup finds a way to get it done.

"We have so many guys who have stepped up during different games to help this team be successful."

South Side's last postseason appearance was in 2000 when the Rams competed in Class A. They went on to win the WPIAL third-place consolation game that season before losing in the first round of the state playoffs.

"I think we do use [the playoffs] as motivation," Hunter said. "We came so close last year and it was an exciting time for the whole community. Our community has really supported us and everyone has had a hand in turning this program around.

"The kids have seen that, and during the offseason we saw a lot of players come back and work to try to get over the hump. The guys are pushing one another and they're enjoying it. We're seeing that hard work pay off."

South Side, however, still has a lot of games yet to be played. Section 1-AA is an eight-team section, including three Beaver County schools and five from Allegheny County.

"Knowing a lot of the coaches and players in this section, no team can be overlooked," Hunter said. "Every team is coached well and there is so much parody.

"I believe [playoff berths] will come down to the last week and probably the last game for many teams. Anyone of these teams can beat anyone on any given day."

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