East Xtra: Central Catholic primed for playoff run

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Frank LaCava's Central Catholic baseball team admittedly isn't original when it comes to laying out goals before the start of the season.

Like so many other squads, the Vikings begin that list of aspirations with a section championship. It's a starting point, the first of several targets that gradually grow in stature before climaxing with a state championship.

Despite an impressive late-season rush, the Vikings (11-4, 7-3) came up short of that goal, finishing a game behind Baldwin and tied with Plum for second place. The Vikings are scheduled to close their regular season with a game today at Seneca Valley.

Entering the final week of the season, the Vikings had already clinched a WPIAL playoff berth and still had a shot at a Class AAAA Section 3 co-title until Tuesday, when Baldwin clinched that honor by defeating McKeesport Area, 12-2.

Regardless of coming up short for section honors, they've been able to experience the kind of success that has become customary for them over the past several seasons.

"That's one of our main goals when we start out the season is to win the section," LaCava said. "We've won the last two. We had 12 seniors who graduated last year.

"We knew we had some good guys coming back and we had a lot of our pitching staff coming back. We had some inexperience in the other positions, but the guys have done a great job."

With its 10-0 victory May 3 against Gateway, Central Catholic clinched a spot in the WPIAL playoffs, the 10th time it has done so in the past 11 seasons.

The playoff spot came due to a strong stretch over the past month, one in which it has won nine of its past 11 games. The defining characteristic of the recent run has been a renewed prowess at the plate, one that has seen the Vikings average more than 10 runs per game over their past seven games.

"We're starting to swing the bats really well," LaCava said. "I'm one of those guys who knows good pitching shuts down good hitting any day of the week, but over the past four or five games, we've been putting up some great numbers."

Entering the season, LaCava had some uncertainty about how his team would fare, the same kind of doubts other coaches without a surefire winner do. A number of key players at important positions returned -- reflected by the 16 of 21 players on the team's roster who are juniors or seniors -- but there were also gaps that needed to be filled by inexperienced players.

A handful of seasoned stars have alleviated any concerns, though.

Three of the team's best pitchers from last season -- senior Grant Gustic, senior Luke Hils and junior Joel Shaffer -- have continued to throw well this season, helping the team hold opponents to five runs per game this season.

Gustic has been particularly strong, as he has yet to lose a decision.

At the plate, Luca Farina has emerged as one of the top hitters in the WPIAL this season after a standout junior campaign. A senior right fielder who has committed to play next season at William & Mary, he was batting .542 through games of April 25, ranking him 18th among WPIAL and City League players with at least 20 at-bats.

Most importantly, though, leaders such as Farina and Gustic have helped mentor younger players and show them what it takes to build a successful program.

"Those guys really took a lot of the younger guys under their wing and taught them the winning ways we have, to keep the tradition going of what the guys before them started," LaCava said.

With the regular season nearing its end, LaCava has a good feeling about his team entering the WPIAL playoffs.

As far as he can tell, there's strength and balance in the fundamental areas of the game and even if they aren't going into the playoffs as a section champion, the Vikings coach believes his team can be a factor once postseason play begins.

"I'd love to see us go and win a few rounds and spoil some teams' seasons," LaCava said. "I think it's this way for every team, but if we can get all three phases of the game working at the same time -- our pitching, hitting and defense -- then we can hang with anybody.

"I like our chances, I'll tell you that."

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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