South/East Xtra: After tough start, Serra finds groove on diamond

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Longtime Serra Catholic baseball coach Brian Dzurenda wasn't too sure what he was going to have to work with before this season.

After graduating just about everyone from the Eagles' 2011 state championship team during the past three years, Dzurenda knew he was going to field a young, inexperienced group.

"We have an extremely young team," he said. "In fact, this is the youngest team I've ever had during my 15 years at Serra Catholic."

A perennial small-school baseball power, Serra Catholic won back-to-back WPIAL titles in 2009 and 2010 and was the first team in PIAA history to play in three consecutive state championship games from 2009-11.

"You never know what to expect until you put the kids out on the field," Dzurenda said. "Our standards are set pretty high at Serra. Expectations for the kids have been extremely high considering what the previous classes had been able to accomplish.

"Coming into the year, we thought we could compete for the section [title] if we got the right breaks. The kids have certainly exceeded our early expectations."

Entering this week ranked No. 5 in Class A by the Post-Gazette, Serra Catholic is riding an eight-game winning streak and is 9-3 overall, including a 6-0 start in Section 2-A.

"We've had some outstanding pitching from two freshmen," Dzurenda said. "Our pitching definitely has been the biggest surprise.

"The maturation of the younger kids, with our freshmen and sophomores, has been the biggest story for us."

Cole McComb and Neil Hartnett are the two freshmen pitchers who have helped the Eagles soar through their first 12 games.

McComb, a left-hander, had yet to give up a run and allowed just four hits in his first 241/3 innings. He collected 47 strikeouts and owned a 3-1 record.

After earning his first career no-hitter April 9 against Monessen, McComb tossed a one-hit, 10-strikeout gem against Bishop Canevin. The 5-1 victory also helped Serra Catholic move into sole possession of first place in the section.

Hartnett, a right-hander from Munhall, was carrying a 1.00 ERA after pitching five shutout innings against Frazier last week. Junior Zac Quattrone, Serra's closer, pitched in relief and struck out three during the 3-1 win.

"I cannot wait to see these kids continue to develop," Dzurenda said. "Cole is about 5 feet 4 and throws in the 80s [mph]. He's just been remarkable and is the most dominant ninth grader I've ever coached.

"Neil is 6 feet 3 and has a fantastic curveball, so with these two guys, it's like grease and lightening."

When McComb isn't on the mound he plays center field with sophomore Noah Kinser in right field and junior Marty Slovonic in left.

In the infield, Dzurenda usually positions Brandon Coddington, the team's lone senior, at shortstop with junior John Fazio at first base, Quattrone at second and junior Parker Janosko at catcher. Junior Ryan Holland and sophomore Ben Davis have been splitting time at third base.

"Brandon Coddington has started since he was a freshman and is the last player we have from our state championship team," Dzurenda said. "He's been a very big role model for the younger kids. He tells them he was in the same situation before and lets them know that they can go out there and compete."

Last season, Serra finished 18-3 after losing to Western Beaver in the WPIAL semifinal and then to California in the third-place consolation game. The Eagles, though, still went 10-0 in Section 2-A and captured their sixth section title in nine years.

"You hear rumblings from people that Serra is going to be down this year and that we couldn't compete," said Dzurenda, a Serra alumnus. "The kids have used that and have played with a chip on their shoulders. They have stepped forward and put forth their best efforts.

"We're playing well right now and everything is starting to come together. The kids are starting to get it and playing well together."

Serra Catholic will close out its regular-season schedule with six consecutive section games starting this week.

"First, we have to stay healthy," Dzurenda said. "Second, we have to keep up the work ethic we set forth. We need to continue to see the success we've had with our young pitchers and we can't give opponents any free passes.

"If we do all that, we're going to be OK. I really like what we have now and I'm looking forward to the future."

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