East/West/North/South Xtra: High school baseball players exercise a choice in Elite League
July 10, 2014 12:00 AM
Pam Panchak / Post-Gazette
Allegheny Tigers' Ryan Bytzura, a West Mifflin resident, delivers a pitch during a game against the Sports Zone Express at Herb Field in Ross.
By John D'Abruzzo / Tri-State Sports & News Service
Local high school baseball players usually have a variety of summer league options once their spring varsity season ends.
Besides community Colt and American Legion leagues, there's also Palomino and AAU travel teams.
For players planning to play baseball at the collegiate level and want to continue improving their skills, they might also participate in the Western Pennsylvania Elite Baseball League.
Featuring some of the most talented players from across the district, the WPEBL is an 18-and-under league with players from Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The eight-team league consists of the Steel City Storm, Sports Zone Express, Steel City Select, Steel City Wildcats, Pittsburgh Spikes, Allegheny Tigers, Independent Players and Pittsburgh Miners.
"It's an amazing caliber of baseball," said Tony Fisher, who is Bethel Park's varsity baseball coach and who coaches the Pittsburgh Miners. "At the high school level it would be above Class AAAA.
"It's very competitive, but the ultimate focus isn't to go out and win every game. We want to make sure the players improve and help them prepare to play at the college level."
The WPEBL was founded nine years ago by a group of area baseball coaches who were looking to form a league with the very best baseball players from around the region.
Mark Saghy helped found the WPEBL and serves on the league's executive committee. Saghy, who is the head coach of the Steel City Wildcats, coached Mt. Lebanon's varsity team for seven years and led the Blue Devils to a state championship in 1998 and a WPIAL title in 2002.
"The popularity of the league has grown immensely," Saghy said. "The best play the best and you see what happens. The league has really spread by word of mouth, through the players and parents."
The WPEBL first started with eight teams in 2006 and expanded to as many as 11 teams at one point. This season, it's down to eight teams after longtime members Seneca Valley and North Allegheny dropped out. The Sports Zone Lookouts also merged with the Express this year, while the Pittsburgh Storm, which is coached by former Duquesne University coach Mike Wilson, joined the league as a new entry.
Most of the teams in the league draw players from all across the WPIAL area. For example, the Allegheny Tigers, who are coached by Woodland Hills varsity coach Tim Banner and Penn Hills varsity coach Ed Carr, have players from Pine-Richland, Greater Latrobe, Freeport, Central Catholic, Plum, Hempfield and Mt. Lebanon all on one roster.
At the other end of the league's spectrum is the Storm, which features players basically just from the south suburbs.
Under league rules, each team may not have more than 75 percent of its players from the same high school team.
"When we started, we were more regionalized," Saghy said. "We had teams from the South Hills, a team from Greensburg in Westmoreland County, a team from Fayette County and teams from Beaver County. Now, we have kids from everywhere playing on different teams."
Saghy's Wildcats have played in the league's championship series for the past three seasons and captured the past two WPEBL titles. The Wildcats also won league crowns in 2007 and '08.
"The league has a lot of talent," Saghy said. "What sets us apart from other summer leagues like Palomino or American Legion leagues is that we have a quantity of talent.
"If you play a three-game series against one of our teams, you're going to see a high school's ace pitcher in the first game, a high school ace in the second game and another ace in the third game.
"Community teams likely have only one ace from that area."
Chase Rowe, who is the head baseball coach at La Roche College, also serves on the league's executive committee and has been involved with the WPEBL for the past eight seasons.
"We've had some teams come and go over the years, but the main consistency has been the overall improvement and competition," said Rowe, who coaches the Pittsburgh Spikes.
"In my opinion, kids face good pitching every night. The kids in this league are seeing college-level -- Division I and Division II -- pitching every single night."
The league also showcases its talent for college and professional scouts. In the past eight years, the league has seen more than 130 players go on to play college baseball. Last year, the entire league played a two-day tournament at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., and drew a total of 26 college baseball coaches.
Saghy has eight players who recently graduated from high school and are committed to play college baseball.
Those members of the Wildcats are Mt. Lebanon's Zack Bahm (Columbia), Pine-Richland's Daane Berezo (Virginia Commonewealth), Chartiers Valley's Dom Castello (Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan), Keystone Oaks' Taylor Lehman (Penn State), Vincentian's Phil Madonna (Siena in New York), Thomas Jefferson's Joe McHugh (Pitt), West Mifflin's A.J. Olasz (Cincinnati) and Upper St. Clair's Gannon Rooney (W&J).
Jory Coughenour's Sports Zone Express team also has eight college recruits in Seneca Valley's Daniel Barna (Ohio Northern), Fox Chapel's Chad Bartlett (Ithaca), Seneca Valley's John Davis (Penn State Behrend), South Side Beaver's Lamont Nolan (Miami Dade), Seneca Valley's Doug McKinney (Carnegie Mellon) and Bryce Schnatterly (W&J), Ambridge's Grant Smith (Point Park) and Beaver's Jordan Yates (W&J).
Through Tuesday, the Wildcats (12-1) owned the top spot in the league standings and were followed by the Miners (8-6), Spikes (8-7), Sports Zone (7-7) and Steel City (7-10). Standings are determined on a points system in which two points are awarded for a victory.
"To be honest, this has been one of the best years by far," Saghy said. "Every game has been competitive and decided by a run or two.
"You never know who is going to win. That's because we don't worry about trophies or stuff like that. We focus on the competition."
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