West Xtra: Hopewell regroups, advances to county Legion finals

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A few months ago, Hopewell's varsity baseball team was packing up its equipment instead of preparing for the WPIAL playoffs -- somewhat of a rarity ofr the Vikings.

Usually a contender in Class AAA, the Vikings were a year removed from playing in the WPIAL title game but followed up by winning just four games this past spring.

Once the high school season ended, however, is when the team really started winning games.

With the majority of the high school team playing American Legion baseball this summer for the Hopewell entry in the Beaver County League, the group made a complete turnaround and is playing in the county's championship series.

"I don't think anyone expected us to be playing so well," Hopewell American Legion coach Dave Denniston said. "Everyone is enjoying themselves and playing good baseball right now."

Hopewell (15-3) won Beaver County's East Division title and will face top-seeded and West Division champion Blackhawk in the league championship series this week.

"This is a good group of kids," Denniston said. "They're playing with the confidence they should have been playing with during the high school season."

Hopewell and Blackhawk opened a best-of-five-game series yesterday and will continue playing tomorrow at Hopewell and Saturday at Blackhawk. The following games, if needed, are slated for Sunday and Monday. All the games start at 5:30 p.m.

Hopewell swept Ambridge-Baden in two games during a best-of-three-game semifinal series last weekend. Hopewell won, 8-2, last Saturday and followed up with a 6-2 decision Sunday. Blackhawk swept Beaver Falls in the other semifinal series.

"In the beginning of the season we struggled the first few games and then ran off 10 straight wins," Denniston said. "I guess everyone became more determined. We had one bad loss early in the year and it sort of ignited them a little bit.

"They were beaten pretty badly and didn't take well to being humiliated."

During the high school season, Hopewell placed last in Section 1-AAA with a 1-9 record. The Vikings finished the season 4-15 overall.

"The ultimate question a coach could ask themselves is, 'What could I have done differently?'" said Mike Shuleski, Hopewell's varsity baseball coach who also serves as one of Denniston's assistant coaches. "The biggest difference is the lack of experience."

Shuleski's high school team had only a few returning starters from the previous season and had to battle through some early-season injuries this year.

"We play in a very difficult section and lost some close games early on," Shuleski said. "With the summer these kids have been having with Legion, it was a fresh start. They're playing very loose."

With Austin Mike at catcher, the rest of Hopewell's infield includes first baseman Jordan Sabo, second baseman Mike Michalko, third baseman Christian Piroli and shortstop Griffin Curry. Denniston usually positions Zeph Kraus, Shane Martin and Collin McKay in the outfield.

Mitch Heranic, who only will be a high school freshman in the coming school year, has been the team's designated hitter. Austin Meuser, Anthony Bonavita and Jake Hazelbach also add depth off the bench.

"Austin Mike, in my opinion, is one of the best -- if not the best -- defensive catchers Hopewell has seen in a long time," Denniston said. "You can put him anywhere on the field and he knows how to do the job. He has a phenomenal attitude."

Mike, Martin, Piroli and Tim Sabo make up the team's pitching rotation.

"They're pitching well and everyone else is coming up with big hits," Denniston said. "Our defense has been solid. Overall, they're playing with resilience.

"We're never out of a game. Even when we've been down early in games, there have been games where we've battled back and won."

Win or lose against Blackhawk in the championship series, Hopewell will still qualify for the Region 6 tournament later this month. Fayette County will play host to the regional tournament beginning July 19.

"We're playing good baseball right now," Shuleski said. "During the spring, we had good pitching and defense, and now our offense has finally caught up with everything else."

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