After 14 straight playoff appearances, Peters Township’s baseball team has failed to reach the postseason the past two seasons. Unfortunately for the Indians, they were their own worst enemy. As the season wore on and players cut out roles for themselves, head coach Joe Maize recognized a troubling sight. Instead of a focus on winning baseball games, individual accomplishments and issues with playing time had a negative impact. Sulking in the dugout was too common.
As Peters Township prepares for the 2014 season, expectations are lofty with eight varsity players returning, including a strong pitching staff and a middle infield that has developed into one of the best in the WPIAL. As the Indians get ready to open the regular season, Maize addressed the importance of a team-first mentality if Peters Township is going to return to the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs.
“I think with the group we have this year, we are going to be competitive – depending upon the players themselves, as far as the mental part of the game,” Maize said. “They need to accept roles they will be given, and I think that is part of the reason we have struggled the past couple of years. Playing-time issues crept into it.”
The Indians finished 2013 with a 13-6 overall record and were in the playoff hunt until the last week of April. They lost two of their final three Section 5-AAAA games, including a 14-11 loss to Canon-McMillan.
Peters Township’s biggest obstacle might be replacing Chris Watschak, who hit for a .473 average and added 21 RBIs. He also threw 24 2/3 innings as a starting pitcher. Insert Max Augenstein – the Indians’ top returning pitcher, who had a team-high 25 2/3 innings for Peters Township last season and went 4-0 in 10 appearances.
“I think the pitching depth is going to be the key,” Maize said. “In the last couple of years, we tried to sell the idea of pitching by committee, and when you have seven guys you can rely on, it really helps when we start getting into the rainouts and you start playing two, three or four games in a row. We have an advantage over other teams.”
Also in the rotation are senior Ryan Black, who has excelled at the plate during early workouts, senior lefty Steve Yuran, junior Phil Mary, and senior Josh Glicksman. Senior Tyler Schmidt is a late-innings option.
While the starting rotation is almost determined, it is the rest of Maize’s lineup that will need to work itself out during the opening weeks of the season.
“Our preseason is going to mainly dictate what we do with the starting lineup,” Maize said. “All of them are going to help. Our strengths are we’re going to be solid up the middle, our outfield will be strong and the team unity aspect is going to be something we’ve been missing.”
The most important returnee for the Indians could be senior second baseman Phil Pisarcik, who missed four games last year because of injury. As Peters Township’s leadoff hitter, Pisarcik batted .386 and his absence affected the remainder of the batting order.
“He is our leader with the way he plays,” Maize said. “He will do anything to stop the ball. We were rolling along pretty well early in the season, then he got injured. He’s our leadoff hitter and it was a big loss when he wasn’t there. I consider him one of the better infielders in the WPIAL.”
As the Indians look to win their first WPIAL championship since 2007, Maize will try to capitalize on his team’s speed to take advantage of baserunners. Last season, the Indians attempted to steal just 10 bases, but with a section featuring powerhouses such as Canon-McMillan, Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park, Maize knows it will take a different approach to reach the WPIAL postseason.
“We are going to be aggressive on the bases,” Maize said. “We will be fun to watch, but who knows, anything can happen. Hopefully, we play deep into May.”
When Peters Township attempts to reclaim a spot in the playoffs, its bitter rival, Canon-McMillan, will be standing in the way. The Big Macs won Section 5-AAAA last season with an 11-7 overall record and 8-2 mark in section play.
Canon-McMillan defeated Moon in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs before losing to Hempfield in the quarterfinals. The Big Macs lost 11 players to graduation and another who was expected to contribute to a playoff push, junior Luke Blanock, is undergoing treatment for Ewing’s Sarcoma.
One year after pitching propelled Canon-McMillan to the section title, Big Macs coach Frank Zebrasky said it will be tough to duplicate their strength on the mound, especially after three pitchers were lost to graduation.
“We are going to have to field the ball properly because our pitching won’t be able to replicate the success from last season, but I think our fielding should help us out,” Zebrasky said. “We had some timely hits last year, and this team played well during the summer season. Unfortunately, it’s a matter of three weeks to play for our section title and the slightest mistake can have you on the outside looking in.”
The Big Macs, like Peters Township, will return to Myrtle Beach, S.C., next week for the Cal Ripken Tournament. Canon-McMillan lost two of three games there last season, while the Indians went 4-0, but it was the Big Macs’ response to the losses that was a springboard for another playoff run. According to Zebrasky, playing three or four games in four days in Myrtle Beach helps prepare for the inevitable spring rain that will force changes in Canon-McMillan’s regular-season schedule.
The Big Macs will have to rely heavily on new players.
“Competition within helps develop an attitude that you want to do well,” Zebrasky said. “We do have some component parts coming back and we do have some seniors coming back. We have the ability with the kids who are coming back to step up and do some special things.”