North Xtra: Experienced Shaler battles for section title

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Armed with the entire starting lineup and pitching staff back from a year ago, the Shaler Area baseball team is poised for a breakout season.

"We are expecting big things," Shaler coach Brian Junker said.

It is the first time in his five seasons that Junker has been able to return the entire team.

"We returned every starter, that has never happened to me and I'm sure it doesn't happen to a lot of teams," Junker said. "We are real excited."

A Monday evening setback in a section showdown did little to temper expectations at Shaler this season.

In a battle for first place in the section, Shaler was edged by Pine-Richland, 5-3, on Monday night. Shaler visits Pine-Richland on May 2 in the section finale for both teams.

"We teach them to play every pitch," Junker said. "If something happens, take a deep breath and try to battle each pitch and get quality at-bats."

In the game Monday night, Shaler forced the Pine-Richland pitcher to throw 129 pitches over a seven-inning game.

"We did our job but it is baseball and sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way and sometimes you make mental mistakes," Junker said. "We understand it is better for that happen in April than in May or June."

The experienced group of players return from a team that qualified for the WPIAL playoffs a year ago. Shaler finished 11-10 overall but it made the most of its section games, winning eight of 10 to share the Class AAAA Section 4 crown with Pine-Richland. Shaler split its two regular-season games with the Rams, an eventual WPIAL finalist. A young Shaler team fell victim to a first-round upset against Plum, 2-1.

After some postponements, Shaler was finally able to get on its home field, Jerry Matulevic Field, to open the season on March 27. It dropped a 5-4 contest to Fox Chapel but responded two days later with a 13-hit performance in an 8-6 win at Mt. Lebanon. Shaler got ready for section play with two more wins, winning, 8-4, at North Hills and exacting some revenge with a 4-3 win at home against Plum, in a postseason rematch from 2013.

The Titans reeled off three consecutive wins to open section play and they did so in convincing fashion. They defeated Allderdice, 8-2, Penn Hills, 9-2, and won at Woodland Hills, 16-5, before the loss to the Rams. They were scheduled to play at Seneca Valley Wednesday in a non-section game.

The Titans are deep, experienced and versatile with arms, bats and fielding. Senior shortstop Justin Mazza headlines the returners. A Marietta College recruit, he leads off the lineup and on the mound, he is the team's closer. Mazza was batting .500 going into this week.

Shaler has a pair of aces back, junior right-hander Jake Potock, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound Division I recruit. Senior lefty Matt Carter also returns. Carter also plays in the outfield and bats third in the lineup.

"We don't really have an ace, we have 1-A and 1-B," Junker said. "That is nice to have -- we haven't had it in my five years. We can run either one out there and even if we had to start Justin Mazza, we consider all three aces."

Also back are catcher John Bender and outfielder Noah Hernandez.

Junior center fielder Andrew Mueller is batting .458 out of the sixth spot in the order. Junior right fielder Noah Hernandez is batting .455, batting second behind Mazza.

"It just seems like someone different steps up every night," Junker said. "These guys, you can sort of plug them everywhere. We don't have many holes in our lineup."

The Titans were scheduled to close out the first half of their section schedule Tuesday at Moon. After games against teams who are section rivals in other sports but not baseball, Seneca Valley and North Allegheny, Shaler resumes section play Tuesday at Woodland Hills.

"We didn't play well a couple times but I think we have much bigger things ahead of us," Junker said. "We are still trying to find ourselves.

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