California winning its first WPIAL baseball title in eight years did not come without a flair for the dramatic.
Trojans senior third baseman Ronnie Baron, who has been the team’s offensive leader for the past two seasons, stepped to the plate in the sixth inning of the WPIAL Class A title game against Carmichaels with runners on first and second.
The Mikes made a decision few have when intentionally walking a batter to face Baron, who weighs 230 pounds, in hopes of inducing an inning-ending double play.
Baron was angry and on the first pitch of the at-bat, made Carmichaels pitcher Cory Fuller pay with a two-run double off the right-field wall to make the Mikes’ decision haunt them.
“To be honest, I thought he disrespected me,” Baron said. “I went up there wanting to hit the ball. He tried to get a double play because I’m not the fastest guy out there and I wanted to make him pay.”
Baron’s hit sealed a 6-1 championship win over rival Carmichaels and put California (20-0) in a favorable spot in the PIAA Class A playoffs. The Trojans face Cranberry (13-1), the District 9 runner-up, today at Burkett Complex in Robinson Township. First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m.
California has dominated its competition this season with senior pitcher Josh Luko, the WPIAL Baseball Coaches’ Association’s Class A Pitcher of the Year, leading the way. Luko has only walked two batters all season and struck out nine in the Trojans’ victory over the Mikes at Consol Energy Park.
He assumed the role as California’s ace after Brian Fisher, the 2013 Observer-Reporter Baseball Player of the Year, graduated and continued his pitching career at Gannon University. Luko’s development was eased by the presence of head coach Nick Damico, a former pitcher at California University, and pitching coach Neil Forsythe, who played at Oklahoma State.
From Luko’s improvement to an emphasis on infield defense, Baron has noticed a significant difference from last season’s team, which advanced to the PIAA Class A quarterfinals.
“During practices, we just took so many ground balls and fly balls,” Baron said. “The communication is really there on defense and Josh has really stepped up. He has thrown a couple no-hitters. The coaches have put in the time hitting us so many balls and Josh makes it easy for us.”
Many coaches would be concerned with the pressure heading into the state playoffs with an undefeated record and a WPIAL trophy in hand. Damico is not the slightest bit concerned about the way his team will respond once the Trojans face the Berries.
“We’ve focused on defense and pitching first this season,” Damico said following the title game win. “Our offense is a bonus. Obviously we want our offense to do well, but sometimes it’s not always there. You go to states where we aren’t as familiar with the teams and we can’t afford hiccups early in games to let it get out of hand. That’s something we need to be aware of, but this team has it in them.”
Despite a favorable seeding in the state playoffs, Cranberry might pose California its biggest challenge of the season in the form of left-handed starting pitcher Dylan Cypert – a Penn State commit. Cypert regularly hits 88 miles per hour and recorded 15 strikeouts in the Berries’ championship win over Coudersport.
With a matchup looming against a pitcher unlike any the Trojans have faced, timing and working against live pitching was an emphasis during weekend practices.
It’s something Baron and California’s seven other seniors are prepared for.
“Since the playoffs have started, it’s a one and done deal,” Baron said. “For us as seniors and the other guys, we’re not ready to give up yet.”
While California is facing the challenge of forgetting a championship win, Carmichaels (14-3) is erasing its loss to the Trojans from their memories.
The Mikes will face Southern Fulton (21-2), which won its first District 5 title since 1981, today at Somerset Area High School. First pitch is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.
Controversy surrounded Carmichaels’ loss to California with the game being split between two days. The result was senior pitcher Brandon Lawless being unable to throw the final four innings against the Trojans.
Lawless, who holds an 8-2 record this season, will be on the mound against the Indians. Southern Fulton also has an ace pitcher in sophomore Trent Rider, who has recorded 69 strikeouts this season with only six walks.
Regardless of the opponent, the Mikes’ tallest task will be forgetting the WPIAL playoffs altogether.
“We have to put everything in the past,” Lawless said. “It’s over with so we need to focus ahead. We have to forget about everything that happened and focus on this team and what we can control.”