North Xtra: Pine-Richland a factor in baseball race despite attrition
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Even with six new starters this season, the goals never change.
Just ask Kurt Wolfe.
Pine-Richland's baseball coach, Wolfe has presided over four WPIAL championships in the past eight seasons. The Rams didn't win a title last season -- but they had a customarily strong team, going 13-5 in finishing in a three-way tie for second place in Section 1-AAAA.
But only three starters returned. Still ...
"The goals never change," Wolfe said. "We're looking to win a WPIAL championship, and we're looking to win a state championship. From year to year, we feel we've gotten our program to the point to where we can contend -- even after having lost six everyday starters.
"We have enough that we should be able to fill those spots in and still continue to be strong and not miss a beat."
At 7-3 heading into a scheduled non-section game against Upper St. Clair Wednesday, the Rams certainly haven't. Pine-Richland is 3-2 in section play and had won seven of nine overall following an 11-1 win against North Hills Monday. They were just a half-game behind the trio of North Allegheny, Shaler Area and Seneca Valley, who were tied for first at 3-1.
"We've been playing well," senior catcher Russell Clark said. "We've had our share of rough games, but whenever we're there and totally focused on the game and completely into what we're doing, we play well and can beat anybody."
Wolfe said the Rams were averaging 14 baserunners per game, including an average of 17.2 per contest in their past four heading into Wednesday. They scored 33 runs in those four games, winning three (the only defeat coming against defending WPIAL champion Seneca Valley).
"We're doing a real nice job getting on the basepaths," Wolfe said.
Listening to Wolfe and one of his players talk, it's obvious that striving to get on base by any means necessary is a team talking point. Clark, a University of Cincinnati recruit and one of the top players in the area, knew exactly how many Pine-Richland players reached base just hours after the game Monday.
Clark should know better than most. He reached five times -- four via intentional walk.
"We're getting a ton of baserunners, which is great for our offense," Clark said. "When we find a way to get the big hit, we'll be scoring even more."
Clark is Pine-Richland's cleanup hitter, batting just after junior outfielder Shane Heim. That core of the order is two-thirds of the Rams' primary returnees from last season, along with senior right fielder Mike Wood.
The two players at the top of the Pine-Richland batting order are younger brothers of former standouts on the Rams' previous WPIAL championship team in 2010. Sophomore shortstop Dane Berezo (brother of Matt) leads off and junior second baseman David Laylock (brother of Steve) bats second.
One of the Rams' top pitchers, junior Jack Hudak, also plays third base and typically bats fifth.
Junior Shea Sullivan will often take over on defense when Hudak or senior Zach Sharrer is pitching. Sharrer also plays first base.
Center fielder Chris Miller and first baseman Ian Fleming also are usually part of the order.
"I think we're slowly getting better with a lot of young guys being forced into starting roles and being forced into leadership contributions," Wolfe said. "We're starting to get into a groove and starting to get more and more experience.
"They're believing in themselves and understanding they are capable of not only playing at the varsity level but on a high level at the varsity level."
Wolfe has what he said is one of his deepest pitching staffs, led by junior left-hander Marcus Colella.
"When he has all three pitches working for him," said Wolfe, "he's our ace."
Sharrer pitched a four-hitter on Monday and has settled into the No. 2 starter's role. Hudak and senior Jeff Quiring also are two of Pine-Richland's top pitchers, and Matt McCarthy has recently been promoted from the junior varsity team and is contributing.
"All those guys have been doing very well," Clark said. "It seems like we haven't missed a beat without all the experience in the seniors that are gone from last year.
"Those seniors and this season's seniors showed them how to act and how they should play the game."
First Published April 19, 2012 11:57 am