South Xtra: West Mifflin has inside track to a section championship

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Jeff Smith is in his first year as head coach of the West Mifflin baseball team, but don't act surprised about the quick success the Titans have endured under his watch.

Although this may be his rookie season as head coach, that doesn't necessarily make Smith new to the program.

"I have been in the program for 10 years," Smith said. "I was given a nice team. They are very experienced. I was the JV coach for the past 10 years. I have been in the program and know the kids well."

Smith has taken over the reins of a Titans team that finished fifth in Class AAA Section 4 last year under Jeff Kuzma and hasn't made the WPIAL playoffs since 2009, but all of that looks like it is about to change.

The Titans lead the section with a 7-1 mark and are 9-2 overall. Both offensively and on the mound the Titans have showcased their balance, but it is their pitching that Smith believes has carried this team to the top of the section standings.

"[My first year so far] is very satisfying," Smith said. "My pitching has done just a phenomenal job. They have carried us through the first half and hopefully it continues that way. We have a senior-laden team and worked very hard to get into this position."

The pitching staff is led by A.J. Olasz, a Division I recruit. Olasz has already committed to the University of Cincinnati.

"He has been outstanding on the mound," Smith said. "Every time we take the field and he is pitching, I am relaxed. I feel like all we need is two runs to win the game."

"He has two things going for him. He is sitting close to 90 mph [velocity on his fastball] and he is a left-handed pitcher. He has that going for him. He is a hard worker.

"He was very excited [about the scholarship to Cincinnati]. Anytime you have a chance to further your education and have it paid for, it is the ultimate dream of a kid except for playing in the major leagues."

Joining Olasz's success on the bump is the Titans' No. 2 starter, Zack Salmon. Salmon has three wins on the season.

Another key piece to the puzzle is second baseman Zach Sodor. Sodor also serves as the team's closer as a relief pitcher.

"He is very comfortable for me to use in a tight situation," Smith said. "If I need an out, he is the guy I would go to. He is my leadoff hitter. He is an all-around good player and great personality."

Besides the pitching, the Titans have one of the more balanced offenses in the WPIAL with six of their nine starters batting better than .300. Sodor was leading the pack with an even .400 average before Tuesday's game against Carrick.

Also hitting better than .300 entering this week's play were catchers Danny Howard (.394) and Ryan Kandsburger (.393), Olasz (.355), third baseman Ryan Catlogna (.345) and first baseman Joe Stavor (.318).

The offense has clicked at times to the tune of five wins via the 10-run rule, including four against section rivals, Carrick (twice), South Park and Thomas Jefferson.

"When we do get hot, it is very contagious," Smith said.

At other times, the Titans showed they can win low-scoring affairs as they did against Belle Vernon Area. The Titans beat the Leopards, 2-1, last week by performing two successful suicide squeeze plays.

"That was a 'small ball' game," Smith said. "They proved to me that not only they can hit but they can bunt. That was a very satisfying win in that sense."

At this point, the Titans couldn't be happier with the position they are in, but they know the section race is far from over.

"Right now being in the position we are in, [the section title] is ours to lose," Smith said. "Elizabeth Forward beat us, but they seem to be faltering now. I would like to say we can 10-run TJ again and same with South Park. We didn't face South Park's top pitcher, so we could take advantage of that."

When driving around the Borough of West Mifflin, one looks for the familiar Kennywood signs. Soon enough, the Titans are going to be finding the signs directing them to the WPIAL playoffs.

"The No. 1 goal is to win the section and make the playoffs and from there we take it one game at a time," Smith said. "It will be elimination games, so we are not looking past our next opponent."

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