Brian Fisher had heard all about Zach Jeney.
How Jeney led the California baseball team to a WPIAL Class A title in 2006.
How he was a dominant, left-handed pitcher, one of the best the program has ever produced.
That’s what made this so sweet.
Last summer, after Fisher had beaten Jeney in a Fayette County League game, he called Trojans coach Don Hartman – shocked, sure, but also brimming with a newfound confidence.
“Knowing that he went up against another California icon and did well, that really carried over,” Hartman said. “It was a great confidence-builder.”
The confidence drawn from that outing continued through the high school season, as Fisher emerged as one of the WPIAL’s top pitchers, winning 10 games – four in the playoffs – while posting a 2.17 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings.
Fisher’s dominance was somewhat surprising after he threw only 16 innings as a junior, and it enabled him to cap his senior year by being named the Observer-Reporter’s Baseball Player of the Year.
“It was the most fun that I’ve had in high school, without a doubt,” said Fisher, who will play either basketball or baseball at Gannon University. “The intensity and the passion that my team brought to those games was just unbelievable. I think that’s what I loved most about it.”
Fisher’s breakout year can actually be pegged to another left-handed pitcher: Cal’s pitching coach, Nick Damico.
A former pitcher at California University, Damico worked with Fisher on keeping his front side closed during his delivery, on striding properly and on his pickoff moves.
Aside from mechanics, Fisher would often sit next to Damico while the assistant coach was calling pitches, learning sequences, how to analyze swings and think a couple pitches ahead.
“It was like an apprenticeship,” Hartman said. “Nick was a great, left-handed pitcher at California University. Wherever Nick went, Brian went. They formed this great bond, this great relationship, and Brian put total trust in Nick. For Nick, I think it was like being on the mound again.”
Hartman likened the relationship to his own with Shaun Rice, who starred on the Trojans’ 2001 WPIAL championship team. Hartman and Rice got along so well that the latter came back to coach for Hartman, who wound up being in Rice’s wedding.
“Not very often as a coach – or even a teacher – do you build a bond with a player and/or student, but you do occasionally,” Hartman said. “And when you do, there’s a chemistry between you and that player that lasts forever. I think it was that way with Nick and Brian.”
Fisher, who was California’s valedictorian, scored more than 1,000 points in basketball and always considered baseball a secondary sport – until this season.
He entered his senior year in excellent shape, the result of a summer spent roofing. He also had that win over Jeney in his back pocket.
“It took three years for me to be able to go on the run that I went on,” said Fisher, who finished second in the WPIAL in wins. “It was all a snowball effect.”
Hartman remembers hearing a different tone in Fisher’s voice that summer night. He even discussed Fisher’s changed demeanor with Damico. And then with each victory, Fisher seemed to get even better.
“All of us as athletes, we walk that fine line between confident and cocky,” Hartman said. “When Brian steps on the basketball court, he thinks he’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He’s also the valedictorian of our senior class.
“He has that (confidence) him, but he needed some experience on the baseball diamond to know he could take this over like he did in the classroom and on the basketball court.
“Once he felt that, it was an explosion. It was like the levee broke … look out, a star is born. That was a unique thing to witness.”