Ligonier Valley will lean on young players in pursuit of Heritage title
Last year, the young and relatively inexperienced Ligonier Valley baseball team flashed plenty of potential en route to a 12-8 overall record and an 11-5 mark in the District 6 Heritage Conference. With many of those players back, the Rams appear poised to contend for the top spot in the conference.
Although Ligonier Valley graduated three significant contributors — Garrett Custer, Hunter Mills and Antonio Hernandez — that trio set an example for the younger players, in particular the strong freshman and sophomore classes.
“They helped the assimilation with the young guys and helped them grow up and learn the way,” said coach John Jones, in his ninth year leading the program.
While Custer and Mills ranked 1-2 in run production last year, the next six players on that list are back: Sullivan Schueltz, Ethan Boring, John Caldwell, Alex Caldwell, John Salancy and Hunter Jones. Additionally, Michael Petrof, Michael Marinchak and Sam Sheeder appeared in the majority of Ligonier Valley’s games as freshmen.
“I think we’re going to be a better team than we were last year,” Jones said. “(The underclassmen) got a lot of experience last year, and they did well.”
While no starting spots have been finalized, second base and two of the outfield positions appear to be competitions that could extend into the season. Sheeder had the inside track on second and also figured to serve as the closer, but a knee injury suffered during football will sideline him for the season.
Offensively, the Rams will have plenty of speed, especially at the top of the order. Three players with 12 or more steals return, with Schueltz and John Caldwell leading the way with 27 and 22, respectively. Ligonier Valley also boasts an array of contact hitters, mixed with players like Salancy who can drive the ball.
“I wouldn’t say we have a lot of power hitters, but we do have quite a few gap hitters,” Jones said.
To that point, last year, the Rams had just two home runs but hit .338 with an on-base percentage of .471.
Pitching should be another strength for Ligonier Valley, despite the loss of Hernandez and Custer, who combined for eight wins and a sub-2.00 ERA. Jones said Boring, who led the team with seven appearances, pitched much better than his numbers (1-3 record, 4.14 ERA) indicated. Boring and John Caldwell, who went 3-1 with a 2.88 ERA, will form the top of the rotation.
Additionally, Schueltz, who was limited to three appearances on the mound last year because he was indispensable at shortstop, likely will be a bigger factor. Sophomores, Marinchak, John Beard and Ben Anderson also are expected to make contributions as pitchers. Without Sheeder, the Rams likely will use a committee approach at closer.
Of the Rams’ eight losses in 2017, three came to eventual state champs: Latrobe, Meyersdale and Central Martinsburg, the team that defeated Ligonier Valley in the District 6 quarterfinals.
Within the conference, the Rams lost twice each to Homer-Center and Blairsville, as well as once to District 6 newcomer West Shamokin. The Heritage Conference alignment will be divided into two divisions for 2018, but Jones believes Homer-Center is the clear favorite.
“They’re the elephant in the room,” he said. “They’re the best.”
Jones, who most recently guided the Rams to a conference title in 2012, sees some similar traits in this year’s team.
“This team has the potential to get there,” he said. “They’re not there yet. So much depends on how much they grow up from last year.”
Sean Meyers is a freelance writer.