Plum has high hopes for 2004 baseball season
Plum will begin the baseball season by heading south for a four-game road trip in Florida.
When they head home, the Mustangs will try to continue driving north — towards a third consecutive WPIAL Section 4-AAA title.
Plum has eight returning starters from a playoff team that lost to Moon Area, 9-5, in the first round of the WPIAL tournament.
Fifteen of the 21 players who dressed in that final game for Plum are back.
“We’re anxious to get our third section championship in a row,” coach Tom McCarthy said. “We have a nice mix of confident players. They learned some things after last year’s early exit. They thought they should’ve done better.”
A solid pitching staff, made up of three seniors, will lead the way.
A.J. Bonetto (4-2) and Jason Schmiedel (4-2, 4-0 section) were two of the top hurlers in Class AAA last year.
They’ll be joined in the rotation by hard-throwing Eric McGough.
All three players also should provide offense. Bonetto hit .381 last year with 17 RBI and also played catcher.
Other key returnees are Kelly Fisher, Steve Beckett, Justin Ayala and Phil Mains.
Plum has a tough schedule with games against Pine-Richland, Butler and Seneca Valley, as well as the Florida trip where it will face a few Class 6-A teams.
“We want to play a tougher schedule because it better prepares you for section play,” McCarthy said.
One player McCarthy thought would make a difference in the pitching rotation did not come out for baseball. Junior Mike McKee decided to focus solely on basketball.
Plum is the only local team in Section 4, but Section 3 houses Kiski Area, Knoch and Fox Chapel.
Kiski Area returns two standout senior infielders from a playoff team in shortstop Jared Shaffer and third baseman Brad Garrone.
Knoch has one of the better catchers in the Valley in Todd Kennedy, and also returns senior pitcher Zach Toth (5-3), who struck out a team-high 36 batters last season.
Kennedy hit .328 as a junior.
“We have a lot of spaces to fill,” said Knoch coach Curt Schnur. “We’re a young team.”
The Knights will be without the services of outfielder Mark Rupert, who opted not to come out for the team this year after committing to play football at Duquesne University.
Fox Chapel returns a solid pitcher in senior Herby Pallotta.
The Foxes were 6-13 last season and lost several good offensive players to graduation.
Class AA, Section 3
Burrell is down this year after losing 12 seniors.
That could open a door for teams like Freeport, Valley and Ford City in Section 3-AA.
Mars, the defending section champion, also has ravaged by graduation.
Freeport lost some pitching, but returns shortstop Luke Westerman (.345), second baseman Kory Micholas and outfielders Ben Cataldi and Tim Tomayko.
“I think the section (3) will be very competitive,” said Freeport coach Chris Graczyk. “Our chance is as good as anybody’s to win the section.”
Valley may be the sleeper here. The Vikings return six starters and have 14 seniors of their roster.
The top returnees for coach Bill Bates’ team are senior outfielder Marcel Schuler and first basemen-DH Matt Matarrese.
Schuler hit .485, Matarrese .465.
Schuler missed a portion of last season with a broken hand.
Senior Joe Veltri is the top returning pitcher. He was 4-1. Bates will build a rotation around him.
Valley also returns slugger Kevin Rayburn, catcher Charles Swanger, second baseman Josh Abati and shortstop Chris Marcy.
“Our defense should be strong up the middle,” Bates said. “All of those guys are very experienced. They’re all very good players.”
Valley has not been to the playoffs since 1993, Bates’ junior year at the school.
Deer Lakes returns pitcher Nick Bonazza and outfielder Bob Smith.
Junior Tony Casale also will provide offense for the Lancers.
Ford City has a new coach in Larry Cujas.
The Sabers return pitcher-outfielder Andy Sacco, pitcher-first baseman Adam Strittmatter, pitcher-third baseman Dan Walters, outfielder Zach Panchik and shortstop J.J. Bartolovic. All five are seniors.
Cujas, a former Ford City softball coach and junior varsity baseball coach, expects Section 3 to be a dogfight.
“If you don’t come prepared to play in this section, you could be out very quick,” Cujas said.
Burrell returns one starter in senior Nick Mangini, who batted .340.
“Everyone looks good in the gym,” said Burrell coach Mark Spohn. “We have a lot of young kids, but they’re unproven.”
Spohn expects sophomore Aaron Brown to make an impact.
“He’s a heck of an athlete,” Spohn said. “We can put him anywhere (in the field).”
As usual, the Bucs could have a strong pitching rotation. Seniors Craig Canfield and Justin Zollinger are two starting candidates.
Mike Fantuzzo also should see mound time.
Class AA, Section 7
Highlands looks strong, but has to replace a talented pitching staff which helped the Golden Rams reach the WPIAL quarterfinals.
The Rams could be the most talented offensive team in the Valley, though, behind senior shortstop Chris Turka.
Turka batted .449 with 24 runs.
Coach Chas Simoni has his hands full this preseason finding a pitching rotation.
Freshman Rob Jewart has shown promise early on.
“You’ve heard of a no-name pitching staff?,” Simoni said. “We have a never-heard-of-him pitching staff. We have guys who can throw, but they’re not fine-tuned yet.”
Another pitcher who could have an impact is junior Mike Finley, who transferred from Freeport.
Four outfielders return, including Zac Sobotka, who hit .391 from the No. 2 spot, and Brandon Ruk.
Highlands has been practicing on the artificial turf of the football field at Highlands Golden Rams Stadium.
North Catholic and Shady Side Academy should battle Highlands for one of the two playoff spots in Section 7-AA.
Kittanning returns standout junior outfielder Jeremy DeLuca, while Apollo-Ridge will look to bounce back from a 3-11 season.
The Vikings are 4-36 the past three years.
Riverview looks to be the front-runner in Section 3. The Raiders lost only two starters from a 10-5 team.
Riverview has 12 seniors, including catcher Fred Federici (.546) and pitcher Sean Truby (5-0 regular season).
Coach Rich Griser also is expecting big things from freshman infielder David Kaye.
Senior first baseman Dan McCurdy also is back.
“With the exception of Kaye and Jason Hamill, we have a veteran infield,” Griser said.
Other key returnees are shortstop Zach Godish and left-handed relief pitcher Lou Pappa.
Riverview has been to the playoffs three straight years under Griser.
Centerfielder C.J. Peters would have been a key player, but he re-injured his shoulder during basketball season.
Peters first hurt the shoulder during football. He may miss the rest of the baseball season, Griser said.
Leechburg returns senior first baseman Rob Mattu, who hit .542 with 29 RBI.
The Blue Devils made the playoffs last year, but lost to California in the first round.
Springdale has some strong pitching back. The Dynamos (6-12) nearly made the playoffs last year, finishing 5-5 in section.
St. Joseph has not had a winning season since 2000. The Spartans are 5-34 the past three years.
Players to watch
A.J. Bonetto (Sr., P, Plum)
Jeremy DeLuca (Jr., OF, Kittanning)
Brad Garrone (Sr., 3B, Kiski Area)
Fred Federici (Sr., C, Riverview)
Nick Mangini (Sr., OF, Burrell)
Rob Mattu (Sr., 1B, Leechburg)
Matt Pellis (Sr., OF, Plum)
Herb Pollotta (Sr., P, Fox Chapel)
Jason Schmiedel (Sr., P, Plum)
Jared Shaffer (Sr., IF, Kiski Area)
Sean Truby (Jr., P, Riverview)
Andy Sacco (Sr., OF, Ford City)
Marcel Schuler (Sr., OF, Valley)
Bob Smith (Sr., OF, Deer Lakes)
Chris Turka (Sr., SS, Highlands)
Luke Westerman (Sr., SS, Freeport)
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review local sports editor. You can contact Bill at 724-224-2696, email@example.com or via Twitter .