California shakes off rust, beats N. Catholic

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A week off in between baseball games had different effects on California High School.


Right-handed senior Josh Luko threw like a pitcher who had a week off to rest his arm. California’s offense played like a team that needed most of the game to shake the rust off and the three hits in the game seemed to drive that point home.


It was Luko, unleashing his 82 mph fastball and spotting his curveball, who controlled most of the game and led the top-seeded Trojans to a 2-0 victory over upset-minded North Catholic in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class A playoffs.


The win extends California’s unbeaten streak to 18 straight to start the season and propels them to the semifinals against Sewickley Academy, a 4-2 winner over OLSH, at a date and time to be determined.


North Catholic, which has a roster of 11 players and tied Springdale for the Section 4 title, finished the season with a 9-9 record.


Luko struck out 13, did not walk a batter and made a crucial defensive play in the seventh inning to preserve the shutout.


“Our offense just wasn’t there,” said California head coach Nick Damico. “Three hits. I wasn’t expecting that.”


California threatened in each inning, just not with base hits. The Mikes put pressure on North Catholic with six walks and two NC errors.


California pushed the first run across in the third inning. Aaron Previsky drew a two-out walk and stole second base. Ron Baron then sent a grounder to shortstop, and Jake Matchner made a bad throw to first base for an error that let Previsky score. The Mikes loaded the bases but Brandon Nataro struck out Gavin Anderson to end the threat.


The Trojans made it 2-0 in the fourth without the benefit of a hit. Casey Zajicek opened the inning with a walk and stole second base. Rob DeFranco moved Zajicek to third with a groundout to shortstop. Luko drove him home with a sacrifice fly to left field.


“We were able to shut them down,” said Damico. “Josh stayed strong through the whole game and did a heck of a job.”


North Catholic had two runners on in the first inning, a runner on second in the second, and a runner to third in the seventh but did not score.


“We just couldn’t get the big hit,” said North Catholic Max Zingle. “We just needed a clutch hit somewhere and didn’t get it. I really thought that if we were going to win this game, we would both be putting some runs on the board.”


North Catholic put two men on in the second inning but Luko got Bailey Synam on a called third strike to end the inning. Same thing happened in the fourth but it was a swinging strikeout of Brandon Nataro that stranded Nick Nyman on third. In the sixth, Jake Matchner reached third on a double and sacrifice bunt. But Luko struck out Nyman and got Tyler Ellwood to pop out to second baseman Mike Luketich.


Luko made a heads-up defensive play in the seventh when Nataro opened the inning with a slow roller just off the first base bag. Luketich made the charging pickup and got the ball to Luko covering first for the out.


“It was like we practiced,” said Damico. “I wouldn’t expect anything different.”


Luko had at least one strikeout in each inning and nine over the first four innings.


“It was nice to get a week off,” said Luko. “I have a rested arm. I was just trying to throw strikes. My curve was a little shaky but I was able to spot that up a little.”


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