East Xtra: Irwin still has winning as goal

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A lot has happened in the past two months surrounding the Norwin baseball community. The high school team, which finished second in WPIAL Class AAAA Section 2 with a 14-4 record, lost in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs to Plum.

Earlier this month, one of the top high school players in Western Pennsylvania, Norwin shortstop J.J. Matijevic, was drafted in the 22nd round by the Boston Red Sox in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft. Matijevic has chosen to maintain his commitment to the University of Arizona.

In preparation, Matijevic has decided to play for the Ohio Glaciers AAU team. Even without its star player, the Irwin American Legion team was able to field a team and has done a respectable job in District 31 of the Westmoreland County Legion League.

"We had no team last year," Irwin assistant manager Kevin Haubrich said. "A lot of kids played AAU. We weren't involved in it last year. They brought the idea to us about a Legion team this year and we tried to hurriedly get it back together. They only had about six or seven guys interested last year so it didn't work out."

Entering play on Monday, Irwin stood in fourth place with an 8-4 record, putting itself in prime position for a playoff appearance.

"Eight teams make the playoffs," Haubrich said. "We feel like we can make the playoffs. It shouldn't be an issue."

Irwin stands two games behind Murrysville for first place, with a key matchup between the two that took place Wednesday. Murrysville edged out Irwin, 3-2, in the second game of the season.

"They are a really good team," Haubrich said. "It was a tight game. We were winning, 2-0, heading into the seventh. We had a young pitcher and he was afraid to make a mistake. It is how you learn."

Irwin's success has come with a good mix of youth and experience. The team consists of eight upperclassmen and 10 sophomores.

The variety of talent has made them the second-highest scoring team in the league with 80 runs entering play on Monday. A big part is the exposed usage of the wooden bats.

"My kids have used wooden bats a lot," Haubrich said. "They hit in the cage with them a lot. I think with the kids today there are more opportunities to be stronger to use those bats. They go through the speed and strength training. It has dropped the home run number down but we still hit some. It has taken away some hits. They are relying more on their abilities to hit behind runners and find the gaps."

Irwin has had many games where its offense has erupted, but it was the game May 31 at West Hempfield that stood out to Haubrich. His squad won the game, 7-2.

"It is a rivalry," Haubrich said. "We played a very good, complete game. Pitching was good and we played good defense. We got some timely hitting. I would rather see the lower scoring games. I like to be in those games."

Even though a lot of the players experienced playing time on the varsity team, this team has a entirely different feeling.

"We want to win of course," Haubrich said. "We want them to learn. I like to see every kid go play in college. There is a very relaxed atmosphere. There is a lot of pressure on the coaches in high school. We don't yell at the kids. There is no sense in that. You can talk to them and teach them. We want to win but on the same line it is very relaxed."

With that said, the Legion team and high school do share one aspect ... winning.

"We have the same goals as the high school program," Haubrich said. "The goal is always to win the district. It will be tough to get to the playoffs and eventually get to the state playoffs. We only take one step at a time. It is good exposure and experience for the kids."

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