Nick Damico’s wish of becoming a head baseball coach at the high school level came to fruition Dec. 4, when he was chosen as Don Hartman’s replacement at California. Not only did Damico replace a coach who won nine section titles and two WPIAL championships in 23 years, but he was faced with making up for the loss of Observer-Reporter Player of the Year – pitcher Brian Fisher.
After serving as the Trojans’ pitching coach for six years, Damico has the benefit of returning eight starters from last year’s team that reached the PIAA Class A semifinals and finished with a 20-6 record. Helping ease the loss of Fisher’s pitching will be senior third baseman Ronnie Baron, who hit .359 in 2013 and has driven in 76 runs during his high school career.
With Fisher gone, Damico will turn to senior Josh Luko, who went 5-2 with 42 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. Also expected to receive quality innings is junior Garitt Woodburn, and a group of three freshmen will compete for spots in the rotation.
Damico, who played baseball at California University, made a decision during preseason workouts to have Luko, who started at shortstop ast year, move to first base to ensure his arm will withstand the increased workload.
Damico is still stressing the importance of pitching and defense – two key components of California’s game during Hartman’s highly successful coaching tenure.
“My philosophy has always been pitching and defense,” Damico said. “Offense has always been a bonus. We’re going to need to pitch and play solid defense to get to where we were last year. That’s how we got there. We had a guy who pitched for us, and he did a great job.”
The Trojans’ offense is led by Baron and senior second baseman Mike Luketich, who hit .457 last season while scoring 37 runs, knocking in 29 and stealing 12 bases. The No. 3 hitter in California’s lineup, Luketich will be expected to contribute at the plate and provide stellar defense up the middle. Luketich will have a different doubleplay partner this year in sophomore Louden Conte.
“(Louden) was our closer last year, but I took him out of the rotation, too,” Damico said. “We needed to make up for moving Josh over to first. He’s able to hit the ball to both sides, he’s a solid defender, and he’s gotten stronger from last year. We’re looking for him to anchor that infield.”
Conte has moved to shortstop to shore up California’s defense, which faltered during its bid for a state championship. With two starters in the rotation who throw sinkers, strong infield defense is pivotal for the Trojans.
“We wanted to solidify our infield by not moving too many guys around this year,” Damico said. “Mike is doing solid at second base, and we’re pretty excited we have those guys for the entire year.”
California will open the season tonight against Serra Catholic, weather permitting, and with expectations high for the Trojans.
“I think we are the deepest we’ve been since I’ve been here,” Damico said. “It’s pretty competitive, and it’s been that way here. We’ve been going at it hard, and I’m excited how we do against a good Serra team.”
The Mikes won the Section 1-A title with a 9-1 record last year and finished with a 12-3 overall record. Their top returnee is senior pitcher Brandon Lawless, who went 7-1 last year with 56 strikeouts and a 2.05 ERA.
Also expected to help are senior shortstop Ty Cole and junior catcher Michael Blasinsky, who was an O-R second team all-district pick last season. He hit .536 with 22 RBI and just five strikeouts in 56 plate appearances
“We have the best section in Single-A,” Carmichaels head coach Scott VanSickle said. “Our section is like playing for the WPIAL title every year. It’s going to be a dog fight.”
The Eagles missed the playoffs in 2013 with a 9-7 overall record and just four wins in section play. Avella does return junior third baseman-pitcher Santino Paris. While missing the playoffs was discouraging, the Eagles went 5-1 outside the section with their only loss coming to Section 5-A champion Our Lady of Sacred Heart.
The Rockets reached the WPIAL playoffs last season with a 7-3 mark against Section 1-A competition and an 11-4 overall record. The Rockets return junior pitchers Logan Bowman and Austin Clark to help make another run.
The Maples only won one game in Section 1 last season and lost five of their last six games. Mapletown does return Ben Boone, a left-handed pitcher and catcher.
The Pioneers lost 10 of their first 11 games in 2013 with their first victory coming against Hundred, W.Va. Unfortunately for West Greene, it only won two more games and missed the playoffs.
They return junior Dalton Eddy, who will be counted on as a pitcher and first baseman this season.
The Greyhounds reached the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in 26 years last season. Monessen lost in the first round to OLSH, which reached the WPIAL title game before falling to Western Beaver.
The Greyhounds, who were 6-11 last year, return senior Justice Rawlins, and juniors Josh Kucmeroski and Noah Rullo.