It’s rare for a first-year head coach to take over a storied baseball program that advanced to the PIAA Class A quarterfinals a year ago and drastically improve its play.
In a sport filled with parody, California head baseball coach Nick Damico has done everything to improve a team defense that faltered in the postseason last year. Damico, who took over for longtime Trojans coach Don Hartman, led his team to an undefeated regular season (17-0) and a Section 1-A title.
When the WPIAL baseball playoff pairings were announced Friday, California earned the top seed in Class A and a first-round bye. The Trojans will face the winner of the game between North Catholic (8-7) and Rochester (8-5) Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.
“I’m sure they have two quality teams there,” Damico said. “We’re excited to start this journey. It should be a fun time. We know we have to play solid defense, we have to throw strikes and we have to hit pitches over the plate that pitchers miss to win the game. It’s baseball and anything can happen.”
It would not do justice to California’s baseball team to judge this regular season on wins and losses. The Trojans, who advanced to the PIAA and WPIAL Class A quarterfinals last season, committed 66 errors in 26 games a year ago. Under Damico, who stressed infield defense to fit senior starting pitcher Josh Luko’s reliance on inducing ground balls, California has committed just 17 errors in 17 games this season.
That recipe has created consistent success for the Trojans, who outscored their opponents, 161-26, in the first 14 games of the season. While the offense has done its part, the WPIAL playoff schedule benefits teams with an ace pitcher by allowing enough time between rounds for him to throw every game.
Luko, California’s ace, might not receive the recognition of others in the WPIAL, such as Blackhawk’s Brendan McKay, but he has thrown two no-hitters this season and uses his sinker to put his infield defense to work. Luko has only walked two batters in more than 44 innings pitched after walking 18 in 44 innings last season.
“He’s able to locate his pitches a little bit better,” Damico said. “He grew, he got stronger and his velocity is up three or four miles per hour. We’re pitching to contact and not trying to strike people out.”
The Trojans will be joined in the Class A playoffs by Section 1-A rivals Carmichaels and Avella. The Mikes (11-2), who lost to California 6-5 Tuesday, will face Springdale (9-7) Monday at Burkett Complex (2 p.m.) in Robinson Township. The Eagles (7-5), who finished third behind California and Carmichaels in the section, will face No. 2 Western Beaver (15-1) Monday at Burkett Complex (4:30 p.m.).
Monessen (8-6), making its second straight playoff appearance and second in program history, will play Our Lady of Sacred Heart (13-5) Monday at Upper St. Clair (2 p.m.). OLSH defeated Monessen in the first round of last year’s playoffs, 12-0.
In Class AAAA games on Tuesday, Canon-McMillan (12-5) will face No. 3 North Allegheny (13-7) at Upper St. Clair (4:30 p.m.) and Peters Township (14-5) plays Pine Richland (15-5) at Shaler Area High School (5:30 p.m.).
South Fayette (10-8) is the area’s lone Class AAA team to advance to the WPIAL playoffs and will face No. 4 West Mifflin (12-4) Monday at Upper St. Clair (4:30 p.m.). In Class AA, Washington (14-4) won its fourth section title in eight years, but did not receive a favorable matchup in the first round. The Prexies will face Beaver Area (10-5), which is the defending WPIAL Class AA champs and state runner-up, Tuesday at Burkett Complex (7 p.m.).
“You have to play the hand you’re dealt, and the only way you can earn respect is by taking care of business and proving people wrong,” Wash High head coach Rocky Plassio said.
Chartiers-Houston (11-5), which finished third in Section 2-AA behind the Prexies and Brownsville, will take on Deer Lakes (14-4) Tuesday at Burkett Complex (4:30 p.m.).