Carmichaels head baseball coach Scott VanSickle was a junior second baseman on California University’s baseball team when a freshman left-handed pitcher named Nick Damico joined the Vulcans’ bullpen.
The two became close friends before living with six other teammates in an off-campus house. Damico dated VanSickle’s sister and friendly competitions playing Nintendo led to the usual razzing.
Fast forward to today and Damico, the first-year head coach of California High School’s baseball team, is preparing to face his longtime friend tonight at 8 p.m. in the WPIAL Class A title game as the Mikes and Trojans face off at Consol Energy Park.
It will not be the first time the coaches’ paths have crossed.
Damico was an assistant under longtime California head coach Don Hartman before taking over this season. When VanSickle was promoted to the Mikes’ head coach, he attempted to recruit Damico as his top assistant.
Tonight’s game will be the third meeting of the season between California (19-0) and Carmichaels (14-2). The Section 1-A rivals played April 9 with the Trojans winning 14-0 and the Mikes lost the second meeting May 6 when California mounted a seventh inning come-from-behind win.
“We knew when we played each other that we had two pretty good teams that had a shot at winning this thing, but before the season even started, we were hoping this was the matchup we would get and both of our communities are pretty juiced up for this one,” VanSickle said.
Carmichaels advanced to the title game with a 9-0 win over Riverview last week and California defeated Sewickley Academy, 16-5. VanSickle and Damico have not spoken since congratulating one another last Monday, but Damico echoed VanSickle’s excitement. With a sellout crowd expected and the game set to be played under the lights, the Trojans’ head coach is focused on keeping his team calm.
“I don’t think either team’s players realize how many people are actually going to be at this game and how loud it’s going to be,” Damico said. “It is going to be an adjustment with that, but we are trying to stay relaxed.”
The Mikes played a flawless semifinal game against Riverview last week with senior pitcher Brandon Lawless pitching a complete game shutout. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out seven and allowed just two hits.
In contrast, California made uncharacteristic mental mistakes against Sewickley by committing three errors and senior pitcher Josh Luko, who was named the WPIAL Baseball Coaches’ Association’s Class A Pitcher of the Year, only lasted two innings after his fastball’s velocity dropped five miles per hour. Damico believes rest had everything to do with Luko’s outing as the right-hander had just four days rest leading up to his start.
The Trojans are familiar with big games as they reached the PIAA Class A quarterfinals last season before falling to Johnsonburg. California’s playoff run came to an end with fielding errors being its Achilles heel. Under Damico, who stressed defense and pitching, the team had only committed 17 errors in 18 games this season before the semifinal game.
VanSickle is as familiar with California’s baseball team as anyone and he believes the Trojans’ improvement in 2014 is directly related to Damico’s promotion to head coach. Although he is quick to compliment his longtime friend, VanSickle is not shy about his desire to see the Mikes hoist the championship trophy.
“Anyone can say what they want about this is his first year and this isn’t his group, but this is his group,” VanSickle said. “He made this team way better than they were last year. It’s not going to be the hatred or anger you have when you want to win a game. I will not enjoy it one bit watching him celebrate if they beat us, but I’m sure he’ll feel the same way if we win. “
Notes: Seton-La Salle and Steel Valley will play today at Consol Energy Park (5 p.m.) for the WPIAL Class AA Championship. Blackhawk will face West Allegheny tomorrow (8 p.m.) for the Class AAA title and Baldwin plays Seneca Valley (5 p.m.) for the Class AAAA Championship.