North Xtra: Seneca Valley's historic streak ends

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Seneca Valley's baseball team needed a win against Fox Chapel in its final section game of the season just to reach the postseason.

But the Raiders, who reached the WPIAL final in each of the previous three seasons, still believed they could make a playoff run.

They were right.

Seneca Valley became the first team to win the WPIAL baseball title with a losing record, and then reached the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals before falling to Conestoga, 3-2, Monday.

"We knew that we were not the caliber of team that our record showed," said senior Connor Coward, a Virginia Tech recruit. "We knew we were a good baseball team and if we could get guys healthy and just make the playoffs, we had the potential to make a run."

The Raiders (12-12), who played much of the season with a depleted roster, went just 6-11 during the regular season, although 10 of their losses came against WPIAL playoff teams.

Coward said that Matt Rafferty, the team's No. 3 hitter, pulled both hamstrings this season; pitcher/infielder Alex Hajduk had an eye infection that affected his vision; pitcher/outfielder Troy Martin injured his shoulder.

And then there's Coward himself, the North Xtra Player of the Year in 2013 after he went 8-1 with a 1.60 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 61 innings. He pitched just one inning against Mt. Lebanon in the 2014 season opener and was out the rest of the regular season due to a stress fracture in his back, a similar injury to the one that didn't allow him to pitch his sophomore season.

It was uncertain whether Coward would be able to return to the Raiders this season.

"I really did take it day by day," Coward said. "Every day after fourth period, I would meet with coach [Eric] Semega and tell him my progress. I was going to physical therapy sometimes twice a day.

"There were times when I didn't think I would make it back. But I got healthy and made a personal decision that if I could help the team in any way, I would. I honestly didn't know until a few days before the first playoff game whether I would be back."

Coward didn't pitch in the playoff opener against Hempfield Area, but he'd get his chance in the next round as the Raiders' upset the No. 1-seeded Spartans, 10-5, behind Vince Augustine's five RBIs. Augustine led the Raiders with a .479 average during the regular season.

The Raiders didn't need much offense in the quarterfinals against Shaler Area, as Coward hurled a three-hit shutout, striking out six in a 3-0 win.

He followed that in the semifinals with a five-hitter against Pine-Richland, as the Raiders became the first team in nearly 100 years to make four consecutive WPIAL finals with a 5-4 victory against the Rams.

"I asked the kids after we beat Shaler and Pine-Richland and even after the WPIAL final what the turning point was and they all said when Connor came back," Semega said. "Even against Hempfield, when he didn't pitch, the fact that they knew he could possibly pitch changed their entire attitude and sometimes that's all you need."

Coward again toed the rubber in the WPIAL final and struck out 11 in a 5-2 win against No. 2 Baldwin to give the Raiders their third district championship in four years.

Rafferty provided some punch at the plate, getting four hits, including a home run. Semega said it seemed a different player stepped up each game for the Raiders.

"We got a lot of key hits [throughout the playoffs]," Semega said. "Certain people came through when needed, and it was never the same guy."

But after beating Moon Area, 4-2, and DuBois, 8-0, in its first two PIAA Class AAAA games, Seneca Valley failed to get the key hits against Conestoga Monday.

Semega said there was a lot of disappointment on the bus ride back from Scotland, but Coward knows that this season will not be forgotten for a long time.

"I think in 10 years, people will look at this 2014 team and realize that [even if you don't] have the best record, [you can] still make a run," Coward said. "I know this will be remembered at Seneca Valley and hopefully around the WPIAL for a long time."

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