Seneca Valley ace Connor Coward missed nearly all of the regular season with a lower back injury.
You could say his team also was absent for most of the spring, barely making the playoffs and then given the No. 16 seed after compiling a record that was five games below .500.
But Coward, a Virginia Tech recruit, returned for the postseason. And his teammates proved in the biggest game of the season they have, too.
Seneca Valley capped its surprising playoff run by earning a third WPIAL title in four seasons after rallying to defeat No. 2 Baldwin, 5-2, in the Class AAAA championship Thursday at Consol Energy Park.
It had been nearly 100 years since a team had reached the WPIAL final four years in a row. After Seneca Valley (10-11) accomplished that, it became what is believed to be the first team to win a WPIAL title with a losing record. Baldwin (16-3) was playing in the title game for the first time.
"Nobody believed we could do it, but we proved them wrong," Seneca Valley senior Matt Rafferty said. "We had a rough season, but we knew we just needed to make the playoffs and then we'd make havoc. And that's exactly what we did. We've been here. We know what to expect. We know the crowds. We know the energy level and what we need to make it through the playoffs."
Having already beaten No. 1 Hempfield and No. 4 Pine-Richland, Seneca Valley knocked off another heavyweight by scoring four runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to erase a 2-1 deficit.
Rafferty reached base in all four of his at-bats, but it was his tying homer that stood out the most. Rafferty said his plan was to bunt for a hit, but after missing on a first-pitch attempt, he swung away and cracked a hanging curveball from Baldwin starter Alex Pantuso over the left-field fence.
Vince Augustine followed with a triple and Coward singled to drive in what turned out to be the winning run. John Davis and John Harper added RBI singles to chase Pantuso, who fell to 6-2.
"He was holding us down early, but I felt like he tired a little bit," Seneca Valley coach Eric Semega said of Pantuso. "He made a couple of mistakes. The momentum again shifted in our direction. When you get that momentum and confidence again, you see what happens."
Coward was terrific. He allowed two runs in the first, but shut down Baldwin over the final six innings. He gave up six hits, didn't walk a batter and struck out 11. Coward improved to 3-0 in the postseason after pitching just once in the regular season because of a back injury.
"I felt like my location with all three pitches was on," said Coward, who went 8-1 as a junior, his only loss coming against North Allegheny in the championship.
Baldwin showed no title-game jitters. Nick Bernick singled sharply up the middle to lead off the game. Soon after, the Highlanders took a 2-0 lead courtesy of RBI singles from Pantuso and Chris Eisel. Baldwin had the bases loaded with one out, but Coward ended what could have been a devastating inning by striking out the final two batters.
"Their pitcher is really good," Baldwin coach Dan Caponi said. "I think he stopped throwing his fastball a lot and started throwing his off-speed stuff a lot. He had great command of it. He kept competing. He battled."