Winter had yet to pass when California first-year head coach Nick Damico gathered his pitching staff for preseason workouts.
Damico, who previously worked as the Trojans’ pitching coach, tutored two pitchers to Observer-Reporter Player of the Year honors and he saw something in senior right-handed pitcher Josh Luko – California’s number two starter a year ago.
As he viewed Luko throwing, Damico noticed a glaring mechanical issue – Luko was not utilizing the lower half of his body as his front side flipped open too early and he was relying purely on arm strength for velocity on his fastball.
It was nothing Luko couldn’t correct, but it did not come easily. Every time an adjustment was made, another aspect of his delivery took a step back.
It was not until the regular season began that the preseason work yielded results. Luko, a California University recruit, did not need to start opening day to become the WPIAL Class A Player of the Year, a first team all-state selection, a WPIAL Class A champion and now, the 2014 Observer-Reporter Baseball Player of the Year.
“It was stressful at first,” Luko said of the adjustments. “Every time, something would need to be changed and I would need to keep working on it. It was all repetition, but luckily I had two coaches helping me out.”
The other coach is California’s new pitching coach, Neil Forsythe, who played at Oklahoma State. Working with the former college pitchers led to historic numbers for Luko: a 10-0 record with 70 strikeouts, a 0.82 ERA and only two walks in more than 59 innings pitched.
It was an astounding ascension considering Luko was not on the mound when California opened the season against Brownsville. Junior Garitt Woodburn made the greatest strides during preseason workouts to earn the opening day start.
The move fueled California to its first WPIAL Class A title since 2006 with Luko’s revamped right arm leading the charge.
“That just pushed me even harder,” Luko said of opening day.
Luko did not waste any time showing Damico and Forsythe what he is capable of doing. Following the Trojans’ first game, Luko tossed back-to-back complete-game shutouts against Frazier and Mt. Pleasant, a Class AAA opponent.
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, we have something special here this year,’” Damico said. “(Mt. Pleasant) was definitely the turning point of the season for him. Josh took over after that start.”
The mechanical change and weight training allowed Luko to increase his fastball velocity by 7 mph this spring. He mixed a fastball with a sinker, change up and curve, while switching his arm angle at times to throw off opposing hitters. Less than a year after Damico observed the right-hander relying on strikeouts a bit too much, Luko was able to keep the ball low in the strike zone to induce ground balls for an infield that committed just two errors in 22 games.
“I trusted my defense,” Luko said. “I had no problem trying to create ground balls. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
He went 5-2 with 42 strikeouts and a 3.60 ERA as a junior as the number two behind 2013 O-R Player of the Year and Gannon recruit, Brian Fisher. He did something Fisher did not – win a WPIAL title.
“That extra speed he added on his fastball is the difference between his ERA last year and his ERA this year,” Damico said. “It’s tough for guys to deal with. In our section, you see someone for three years and are expecting some slower stuff, but he shows up throwing much faster. They didn’t know how to adjust.”
Luko led the Trojans to a 6-1 win over Carmichaels, which he pitched a no-hitter against earlier in the season, in the WPIAL Class A Championship at Consol Energy Park. It took two days with play and 114 pitches, but Luko tossed a complete game with nine strikeouts and no walks after the game was suspended following the third inning.
He was a model of efficiency and had been since watching Woodburn took the mound against Brownsville. Luko refused to allow his mechanical struggles prevent him from achieving the distinction as the top pitcher in Class A.
“Everyone had been telling us we had potential to do good so it was probably on everyone’s mind,” Luko said. “We just worked hard to reach that.”