T.D. Conway carried a heavy load for the California High School baseball team a season ago, compiling a 12-2 record while striking out 120 batters in 73 innings. The performance was so spectacular it earned the Trojans a berth in WPIAL Class A championship game.
But with Conway now at California University, Trojans coach Don Hartman knows he won’t be able to replace Conway with one person; it will have to be a group effort, one divided between the five starters the Trojans return.
“We’re confident because we have a lot of kids back from last year’s team,” Hartman said. “But we know we don’t have a kid who’s 6-5, 230 pounds and throws the ball 87 miles an hour. So you change your game plan a little bit.
“Last year we knew if we got T.D. a couple runs and got behind him defensively, he’d do the job.”
California, which dropped a 5-0 decision to Neshannock in the WPIAL Class A final last year, returns pitcher Josh Luko, who was 6-0 with a 3.21 earned-run average and 30 strikeouts in 28 innings last year. He’s also the team’s starting shortstop.
Brian Fisher threw 16 innings a season ago and could give California some pitching depth, but nobody else logged more than five innings. Even more telling of how much the Trojans leaned on their ace last season: While Conway had 120 strikeouts, the rest of the team totaled 53.
“I have a bunch of arms, but pretty much none of them have thrown at the varsity level,” Hartman said. “With no scrimmages so far, I have no idea what I’m going to get when I put them on the mound. Throwing in the gym is one thing. Throwing outside is another.”
California, which went 12-0 – 19-2 overall – to win the Section 1-A title last spring opens its season Friday afternoon at Charleroi. The Trojans will host Class A power Serra Catholic Monday, then must wait seven more non-section games before starting the 1-A schedule.
Besides Luko, California will look to junior third baseman/pitcher Ronnie Baron, who hit .355 last season; catcher Jake Columbus, a .404 hitter in 2012; and Mike Luketich, a returning starter in the outfield after hitting .407 last spring. All are
California scored 10 or more runs in 15 of 22 games last spring, but Hartman thinks with the hitters the Trojans have returning, there’s a chance to be even better offensively.
“Other teams are going to score some runs,” said Hartman, who’s entering his 23rd season at his alma mater, the 16th as head coach. “I think they understand that concept. If they don’t, I’ll make sure they understand it.”
Sophomore Aaron Previsky will move to center to take over for Patrick Tunney, who graduated after leading Class A with 38 runs scored.
Hartman thinks freshman Louden Conte, the son of California University head coach Mike Conte, could challenge for playing time.
“We should be strong up the middle,” Hartman said. “The big question for us is our pitching. I think we have some pretty good arms, but they’re not battle-tested. T.D. ate up a lot of innings, and everything worked out with the weather where he pitched when he could and stayed healthy all year.
“I think this year we need to be a better offensive team and have a different game plan because we don’t have a horse like him.”