High school baseball teams vying for the ultimate prize of a PIAA championship must endure unpredictable opponents and little time between games, which can wreak havoc on pitching.
Carmichaels (15-3) finds itself dealing with both scenarios as it prepares for a PIAA Class A quarterfinal matchup with Elk County Catholic (23-0), the District 9 champions, at 5:30 p.m. today at Slippery Rock University.
The game will mark Carmichaels’ first quarterfinal state playoff game since 2008 and mystery surrounds the opposing Crusaders, who defeated Sewickley Academy in the first round.
Carmichaels knows little about the opponent other than Elk County Catholic will likely start right-handed pitcher Brandon Schlimm, a St. Bonaventure recruit, who throws a fastball in the high-80s to go along with a curveball and a changeup.
The 6-4 hurler will be opposed by either Bill Bowlen or Ryan Zalar. The Mikes’ top pitcher, senior Brandon Lawless, is ineligible to throw in the quarterfinal game after tossing seven innings in Monday’s win.
Facing a hard-throwing pitcher is nothing new to Carmichaels. The Mikes faced Southern Fulton’s Connor Litton, who threw in the mid-80s Monday at Somerset. Litton finished with 11 strikeouts, but the Mikes pulled out a 5-4 win.
“Everything you have to do, you have to put the ball in play,” Carmichaels head coach Scott VanSickle said. “(Schlimm) is supposedly a big strikeout guy and when a team has someone like that, you have players who are flat-footed in the field so hopefully we can catch them off guard with a few hard hit balls.”
Being thrown out of its comfort zone is something Carmichaels is well-equipped to handle. The Mikes’ roster includes nine seniors, most of whom have plenty of postseason experience.
Having a coach who is a former infielder at California University and possesses an intense approach to baseball has helped mold the Mikes’ identity into one that senior shortstop Ty Cole simply describes as “scrappy.”
“We bunt a lot, and we don’t have very many power hitters so we just scrap it out,” Cole said. “We’ve done it all season. Brandon is probably the most dominant pitcher in the WPIAL so with our hitting, we have to scrap it out.”
The biggest question for Carmichaels will be which player will fill in for Lawless, who has thrown over 60 innings this season with 81 strikeouts. Bowlen pitched in the second day of the WPIAL title game against California where he allowed four hits and allowed two inherited runners to score.
Zalar, a former WPIAL wrestling champion who plans to join the Marines, spends most of his time as the Mikes’ leader in centerfield but has thrown 10 innings this season with a 0.70 ERA and seven strikeouts.
Having a strong infield defense led by Cole, a Salem International University recruit, helps. Cole made several nice defensive plays against Southern Fulton and was bailed out by senior first baseman Justin Newman, who made an outstanding play to pick a throw out of the dirt that Cole short-hopped to first to end the game.
“They were nerve-racking,” Cole said of the final two innings of the game. “Brandon didn’t have his A stuff that game, but we bailed him out. Newman made some nice picks and we did what we can do.”
Carmichaels has played on synthetic surfaces during the playoffs, but that will change at Slippery Rock, which has a grass infield. VanSickle and the Mikes traveled to McMurray’s Peterswood Park Wednesday to practice infield hops and prepare for the different surface.
With all three of Carmichaels’ losses this season coming against California, VanSickle feels optimistic about the Mikes’ chances against Schlimm and Elk County Catholic.
“I told them things happen for a reason because everyone was pretty down about losing that WPIAL title game,” VanSickle said. “We’re in a good spot and we’re one of the eight teams left in Pennsylvania in Class A still playing and I’m kind of happy about that.”