North Xtra: Seneca Valley comes on strong in postseason

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It was odd seeing the Seneca Valley Raiders finish the regular season with a record well below .500.

It was weird hearing them pegged as the No. 16 seed when the WPIAL Class AAAA playoff pairings were announced.

But when the playoffs concluded last Thursday, witnessing where they finished felt pretty normal.

Seneca Valley won its third WPIAL Class AAAA title in four seasons with a 5-2 triumph against Baldwin at Consol Energy Park. The Raiders did it as the tournament field's lowest seed and after compiling a less-than-stellar regular-season record of 6-11.

"It's pretty amazing, isn't it?," Seneca Valley coach Eric Semega said. "It's been such a great ride compared to where we were the first 17 games."

Monday, Seneca Valley (11-11) won its fifth game in a row after dispatching WPIAL third-place finisher Moon Area, 4-2, in a PIAA first-round game at Kelly Automotive Park in Butler. Now two victories away from reaching the championship game, Seneca Valley will play District 9 champion DuBois at 3 p.m. today in the quarterfinal round at Slippery Rock University.

No team in nearly 100 years had reached the WPIAL final four years in a row. It is believed that no team had ever won a WPIAL title with a losing record. Seneca Valley accomplished both last week.

With star pitcher Connor Coward back in the stable -- a Virginia Tech recruit, he missed nearly all of the regular season with a back injury -- Seneca Valley underwent an almost overnight turnaround in the WPIAL playoffs. The Raiders rolled to the title after picking up wins against No. 1 Hempfield Area, No. 9 Shaler Area, No. 4 Pine-Richland and No. 2 Baldwin.

"After we beat Hempfield, we just saw the confidence in our kids rise," Semega said. "They had nothing to lose. When we got into the playoffs, we called it playing with house money. Momentum and confidence goes a long way. When you have some timely hits and make some plays, and you have a pitcher come back who hasn't pitched all year, that's a pretty good recipe for what we did."

Senior outfielder Matt Rafferty said he and his teammates believed they were capable of a championship run if they could somehow sneak into the playoffs. The Raiders tied for third place in Section 1.

"Nobody believed we could do it, but we proved them wrong," Rafferty said after the championship win. "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."

Rafferty provided one of the game's biggest hits. He crushed a curveball over the left-field fence to bring Seneca Valley even with Baldwin, 2-2, in the bottom of the fifth inning. Coward, John Davis and John Harper added RBIs in the four-run inning.

With Coward on the mound, the three-run lead was more than enough. Coward struggled in the first, giving up two runs as Seneca Valley fell into an early hole. But Coward soon found his groove, allowing only three hits the rest of the way. Coward became Seneca Valley's winning pitcher for the third game in a row after striking out 11 and not walking a batter in seven innings.

Rafferty had two hits and reached base in all four of his plate appearances. Alex Hajduk reached base in all three of his plate appearances, which included a second-inning RBI single and fourth-inning double.

Monday against Moon, Johnny Brittner and Vince Augustine had RBI doubles and Davis drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. The Raiders scored their other run on a wild pitch. Hajduk tossed a four-hitter to earn his second win of the season.

Seneca Valley won PIAA titles in 1995 and 2007. Those teams had much better records than this year's squad, but this group doesn't seem to care at this point and is more focused on riding what is a tremendous wave of momentum.

"I'm so excited," Rafferty said. "I'm looking to win that first state title in my four years of being here."

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