Since California’s baseball team began preseason workouts Oct. 20, there has not been much talk of defending its WPIAL Class A title.
After losing eight seniors, including six starters, head coach Nick Damico challenged the Trojans to continue the team’s strong tradition. His group responded brilliantly, winning the program’s 25th section title and earning the top seed in the WPIAL playoffs.
The seeding and what happened last season did not mean a thing to California. Returning to Consol Energy Park for a shot at another WPIAL title was all that mattered.
California assured that by grabbing the lead with a five-run third inning and holding off a rally by fourth-seeded Serra Catholic, winning 6-4 in the semifinals at W&J’s Ross Memorial Field to clinch the program’s fifth WPIAL title game appearance since 2005.
The Trojans (19-1) will face second-seeded Greensburg Central Catholic, a 4-3 winner over Bishop Canevin, next Tuesday or Wednesday at Consol Energy Park.
“It’s incredible. It’s what we’ve been working for all year, and it’s what we expected coming in here today,” California junior Louden Conte said.
Despite trailing 6-0 after allowing a five-run third inning in which it committed three errors, Serra Catholic (16-6) had a chance to spoil the Trojans’ championship hopes.
Two singles and a walk loaded the bases for the Eagles in the top of the fourth inning. Ben Visnesky delivered an RBI single, another run scored on an error and Jake Eged hit a sacrifice fly to draw Serra Catholic to within one run.
Another infield single loaded the bases again, but Trojans starting pitcher Chris Swartz induced a fly out to center field to end the threat.
Visnesky entered as a relief pitcher and was dominant, retiring all nine hitters he faced, including three of the Eagles’ nine strikeouts.
It was an inconsistent game for California’s offense. Though its top-three hitters in the batting order each had a hit, the bottom four went a combined 1-for-11 with eight strikeouts.
“That’s typical of us. I don’t know what it is, but we get those big bursts in those innings and then we die off,” Damico said. “I don’t know why. We keep repeating it in the huddle between innings. All the credit goes to them. Their pitchers threw well. They busted us up inside.”
Serra Catholic stranded a runner on second in the fifth inning and scored again in the sixth against California pitcher Drake Johnson when Noah Kinser hit an RBI double that just stayed fair down the left-field line, cutting the Trojans’ lead to 6-4.
Damico had to make several defensive switches, but turned to Conte, a highly regarded shortstop, in relief. The move paid off when Conte ended the inning with a fly out to center field. A runner reached first against him in the top of the seventh on an error, but Conte used his fastball and slider to retire three of the next four, sending the Trojans back to the championship game.
The junior, who is ambidextrous, threw right-handed to four righties, and when a lefty stepped to the plate with two outs in the seventh, Conte looked over to Damico to see if he could throw left-handed.
Damico did not want to risk anything and Conte ended the game with an inside breaking ball.
“I felt great today. Whenever you get into these close games, all of that adrenaline is running right through you,” Conte said. “I just took a deep breath after every pitch and focused on every pitch. I did take a second look at the dugout. I saw Coach Damico standing close, but I thought I’d just stick with the righty.”
California took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Conte, who went 1-for-2 with two runs, was hit by a pitch, stole second, advanced to third on a single and scored on a wild pitch.
The Trojans’ five runs in the third came on five hits and three errors by Serra Catholic. Paul Peters, Conte and Johnny DeFranco hit singles to load the bases before Nathaniel Luketich hit an RBI single. Aaron Previsky and Casey Zajicek also drove in runs.
“We made too many mistakes, too many errors led to the runs,” Serra Catholic head coach Brian Dzurenda said. “I tip my hat to California. Coach Damico does a great job with the program over there. We wish them luck and hope they win it all.”
Despite the inconsistent performance on offense, California was strong defensively. It was not the usual dominant performance by the Trojans, but they accomplished the goal set seven months ago.
“It’s a testament to these guys and how hard they work,” Damico said. “We started Oct. 20 this year, worked our butts off and I’m just glad it paid off for them. I really am. I’m really proud of these guys.”