North Xtra: Steel City off to strong start

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After placing second in the NABF World Series in 2011, Steel City fell short of the national tournament the past two years, including a 1-2 showing at the regional in Pittsburgh last season.

The Black Sox return a core that played for North Hills in the early 2000s and has been with the team since it began six years ago -- Dustin Mills, Steve Long, Mike Reeves and Dante Vaccaro.

But Mills, the Black Sox's coach, knew he needed better pitching depth behind ace Steve Long if they wanted to get back to the World Series, and recruited quite the staff in the offseason.

Steel City added five current or former pitchers from Point Park -- John Corcoran (Fox Chapel), Derek Peluso (Seneca Valley), Nathan Sphon (Greensburg Salem), Ryan Loutsenhizer (Norwin) and Isaiah Marsh -- as well as Shaler's Matt Carter, a senior this spring for the Titans.

"The difference for us this year is this is the deepest pitching staff we've had," Mills said. "We've always had a good core, led by Stevie Long, our ace, but we're so much deeper. We have a bullpen and can shorten the game.

"In the past, we've kind of run out of pitching."

The proof has been in the pudding for Steel City so far this season. The Black Sox allowed just 23 runs in their first 13 games, winning 12 of them to put themselves atop the league standings.

Steel City's only loss came in a 3-1 setback in the second game of a doubleheader against Allegheny Valley May 25.

The Black Sox offense hasn't been too shabby, either. Steel City has scored 78 runs in its first 13 games, scoring at least six runs on nine occasions during that span.

"We have a deep pitching staff, but we also have a very deep offense," Mills said. "We've always had a pretty good top six or seven in the lineup, but now we're solid throughout."

The team added some nice offensive weapons in Tom Carter, Matt's older brother, and Ryan Mincher.

Tom Carter, who played at Shaler and Cleveland State, has played for Mills in the past, but was not living in the area last season. Mincher has also played for Steel City before, but the Shaler graduate and current University of Pennsylvania shortstop played for the Alexandria (Va.) Aces in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League last season. Mincher was an all-Ivy League selection this past season.

Additionally, the team has brought back Don McDuffee and Tom Birko (Montour), two of the better hitters Point Park has seen. Birko is the school's all-time hits leader with 220, and the 77 hits McDuffee had during his senior season is the second most in a single season at the school.

The depth throughout the team has the Black Sox thinking they not only can win the Greater Pittsburgh Federation League this season, but that they can make it back-to-back national champions from the area after St. Johns-Lefty's won the title in 2013.

"I think we're capable of winning that national championship," Birko said. "St. Johns did it last year and we didn't have the pitching then to beat them. But I have high hopes this season. I feel like we can do it. Our team is better than the one a few years ago that finished as the national runner-up, just talking with the players that were on that team."

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