Pitching and defense have been the foundation of California High School’s baseball program for the past 15 years. The Trojans do not produce highly recruited arms, but every spring a pitcher develops into one of the best in WPIAL Class A.
The past three Observer-Reporter Baseball Player of the Year winners have been pitchers from California: T.D. Conway, Brian Fisher and Josh Luko.
Luko received the honor last year after leading the Trojans to a 20-1 record and the WPIAL Class A title. With the savvy right-hander gone, California head coach Nick Damico has challenged his pitching staff to keep the program’s reputation intact.
Senior Garitt Woodburn, a 5-11, 200-pound righty, will get the first chance to claim the title of staff ace after he went 7-1 last season with a 1.76 ERA as the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation.
“Who’s next? Who wants it?,” Damico asked his pitchers.
“These guys have been working hard and right now it’s Garitt. He is going to be our guy.”
The quandary was magnified with sophomore Nathaniel Luketich experiencing issues with his arm, which will prevent him from pitching this season. Damico’s compliment to Woodburn will bring an entirely different look to the mound, depending on if the hitter is right- or left-handed.
Junior Louden Conte, who batted .507 with 26 RBI, 14 stolen bases and an on-base percentage of .621 last spring, is naturally ambidextrous – he can throw either right-handed or left-handed. Conte’s fastball reaches the low 80s using his right arm and low 70s using his left.
Conte’s work on the mound might be limited though since he is a tremendous defensive player at shortstop, committing only three errors in 21 games last season.
“We preach that pitching and defense wins championships here,” Damico said. “We stick to that and the guys buy in.”
California lost All-WPIAL catcher Jake Columbus, third baseman Ronnie Baron, Luko and two other key contributors from the WPIAL title run. Having Conte, Luketich, Woodburn and senior Aaron Previsky – who made the switch from center field to catcher – will help.
Sophomore Johnny DeFranco will step in at second base, junior KC Zajicek will move from left field to center field, 6-2 sophomore Alex Adams replaces Baron at third base and senior Paul Peters is expected to start in right field.
It all came together Monday when the Trojans defeated Washington, the defending Section 2-AA champion, in a non-section game.
“The big message is you can’t just put on this uniform and expect to win,” Damico said. “You have to put the time and the work in. It’s paying off so far. We have some good players and we had guys last year who were competing all year with those starters and that got them so much better.”
California won its fourth WPIAL title in program history with a victory over Section 1-A rival Carmichaels at Consol Energy Park last May.
The Mikes defeated Southern Fulton in the first round of the PIAA playoffs with a senior-laiden lineup led by pitcher Brandon Lawless, who finished the season with 90 strikeouts.
Eight starters from last season are gone and Carmichaels first-year head coach Richard Krause is still finding the right mix to compete with the Trojans.
“We’re very inexperienced. If you look at total innings pitched, the top three kids are gone,” Krause said. “We’re going to be green, but we’re going to be gritty. We’re going to be aggressive how we do things. The proof is actually in doing it.”
Juniors Bill Bowlen, Jacob Kinsell and Mike Ludrosky will headline the pitching rotation, but none have vast experience at the varsity level.
Replacing the bulk of the batting order will be a challenge, especially with only one senior on the roster. Senior catcher Michael Blasinsky, an O-R First Team All-District selection last spring, is back after batting .424 with 26 RBI.
“If you are going to have one, that’s the one to have,” Krause said. “Mike has improved greatly. He has been a really good leader. That’s one of the best parts we’ve seen so far. He’s going to be a rock for us.”
The Bearcats drop from Class AA to compete in Section 1-A. They finished with a 9-11 record last spring. Bentworth lost six seniors but opened the season with a 9-0 non-section win over McGuffey, a Class AAA opponent.
“Bentworth’s coach, Dion Jansante, was a college teammate of mine,” Krause said. “I have lot of respect for him and the program he’s built there.. That’s going to be a tough opponent for everyone.”
The Rockets missed the WPIAL playoffs with a 5-10 record after losing seven of their first eight games last spring. Though Jefferson-Morgan lost eight seniors, pitcher Austin Clark returns.
The Pioneers went 5-9 last season. Gone are three key seniors, but the return of senior Dalton Eddy and junior Dillon Shields should help.
The Eagles advanced to the WPIAL playoffs with a 7-6 record but lost in the first round to Western Beaver. Avella has moved to Section 5-A, which includes Bishop Canevin, OLSH and Brentwood.
Senior pitcher Santino Paris had a 4-1 record last season with an impressive 1.95 ERA and 42 strikeouts.
The Maples were 3-13 last season with their only win over a team fromPennsylvania coming against Geibel Catholic in the season opener. Improvement could be at hand as only four seniorswere lost from last year’s team.
The Greyhounds made the playoffs after winning six of their last seven regular season games, but a strong senior class is gone.