West/North Xtra: Sewickley's landmark season ends with PIAA loss

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When Andrew Heck took over the Sewickley Academy baseball team in 2013, the Panthers were coming off a 5-9 season and hadn't made the postseason since 2006.

This week, Sewickley played its first PIAA tournament game in school history.

The Panthers (10-7) beat Riverview, 9-8 in nine innings, last week in the WPIAL Class A consolation game to qualify for the state tournament, where it fell to Elk County Catholic, 3-2, Monday.

"It was more about changing the mentality than anything else," said Heck, a North Hills High School grad who played college baseball at Duquesne and Oklahoma State and then played with the Washington Wild Things. "The talent was there; they just needed to expect to win every game. Before, however, they expected to get crushed by the best teams and beat up on the worst teams. You need to play, compete and expect to beat the best teams."

It didn't take long for Heck to help change the Panthers' fortunes.

In Heck's first season, Sewickley went 11-6 overall and tied for second in Class A Section 5 with a 7-3 record. That earned the Panthers a spot in the WPIAL postseason for the first time in seven years.

But Sewickley was unable to post its first playoff win in more than 15 years, falling to California, 7-4, in the first round.

"It was a steppingstone," Heck said. "Our goal last year was to make the playoffs and we achieved that.

"This year, we set the bar higher."

Sewickley had depth returning in the pitching staff in Drew Johnson, Joe Nagel and Sam Duerr.

The offense, led by Nagel, Johnson, Mike Manzinger, Derek Littlefield and Ben DiNardo, has provided the pitchers with more than seven runs a contest and has scored at least nine runs in seven of the team's 16 games.

The Panthers have also gotten some heroics from sophomore Drew Zbihley, who has two walk-off hits in the postseason. The second of those game-winners came against Riverview last Thursday, driving in DiNardo with a bases-loaded single.

It capped off a comeback win that saw Sewickley rally from an 8-5 deficit with only two innings left.

"I'm really proud because in the past, that's a game where we would have folded," Heck said. "But we just battled and battled and battled and that's been the story for us all season."

That fight has helped Sewickley step up to the next stone as the program continues to climb the mountain.

"It's just another step in the process," Heck said. "It's so important for these young kids because they've never had these experiences.

"Unless they did it in soccer or golf or basketball, it's the first time they've been in the second round, and the third round and the state playoffs. Now they know what it took to get here and what it takes to play this late in the school year."


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