BASEBALL PREVIEW: Loaded Panther Valley team hopes for more postseason success
Panther Valley, which won a district title last season, returns most of its players and hopes to make another postseason run in 2023.
Like the Panthers, many other teams from the Times News area are hopeful of a winning season and a chance to play for a championship.
... The Panthers return all but one player from their 18-7 Schuylkill League runner-up and District 11 championship team from a year ago. Coach Rich Evanko is in his eighth season at the helm, and he didn’t downplay the fact that his team is stacked with proven stars at nearly every position.
... PV will send proven winners to the mound. Senior Brad Hood, a Mansfield College commit, was 6-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 13 appearances last year. His brother, Stephen Hood, who Evanko calls his 1A pitcher was 5-4, and sported an ERA of 2.55. Junior Tyler Black along with senior Michael Pascoe - who is headed to Chestnut Hill next season - round out a solid four-man rotation. Cody Orsulak, a Franklin Pierce commit, and Trey McAndrew have also had success on the bump. “We certainly have plenty of arms to throw at our opponents, but we are still working them hard to get better every day.”
... Last season the Panthers batted .332 as a team, led by Pascoe’s .429 average and Orsulak’s .382. Hayden Goida, who will play third base, hit the ball at a .375 clip. “We are pretty strong one through nine, and we have some team speed too,” said Evanko. Leadoff hitter Chase Weaver is a blazer, and will be utilized on the bases to wreak havoc on opposing pitchers and catchers.
MOVING THE MERRY GO-ROUND
... Evanko expects his team to score runs in bunches. He emphasizes classic, tried and true baseball strategies such as hitting behind the runner to move them into scoring position. “We also spend plenty of time working on our bunting game, and we’ll play small ball when the situation and the game score calls for it.”
... Because of their stellar success last season, Evanko is well aware that his Panthers will be the hunted team this spring. “We know we’ll have targets on our backs, and that our opponents will have extra motivation against us. We have to be mentally prepared every time we take the field. I think we’ll be up to the task because we play the game as a team, not as individuals and if we fall behind, there’s no lead too big that we believe we can’t overcome.”
LEADING THE WAY
... Coach JC Dietz begins his second season after guiding the Tribe to a 9-11 record last year, a mark that missed district playoffs by one game. Rostering 26 players this year, the Maroon and White hope to have their first winning season since 2016.
IN ARMS WAY
... The Indians have no shortage of hurlers this year with at least eight players that can man the mound. Carter Birnbaum returns after a solid 5-2 sophomore year. Seniors Talan Sensinger and Ian Rarick, plus juniors Brady O’Donnell and Michael Yeakel, will also throw while Aiden Albert is the designated closer. “The key for us is throwing strikes,” said Dietz. “Last year, we walked way too many hitters. When we get in the zone, we give our fielders chances to make plays.”
... Once again, the Tribe’s batting order will feature Ian and Aiden Rarick. Ian batted .368 a year ago and Aiden hit .304. Together, they stole 21 bases. “With their high on base percentage, we expect them to lead us in runs scored,” said Dietz. Sophomore catcher John Light has proven to be a tough out. “He runs deep counts and is a solid contact hitter.” Senior first baseman Austin Greene brings a high baseball IQ to his game and is the “ultimate team player,” according to Dietz.
... Dietz has a four-player outfield to track down the balls in the air. Junior captain Dawson Keiser will play one of the corners when he’s not on the mound. Center fielder Ian Rarick can run them down with his speed. O’Donnell is much improved in left and Adam Bastone will be in the mix.
A POSTSEASON GOAL
... The Tribe finished last year with a win over Class 2A district champion Panther Valley. “That win provided us with some extra energy coming into this season,” said Dietz. “Our goal is to keep playing once we finish our regular schedule. We believe we have team speed, but we need to cut down on our strikeouts and put the ball in play. That, along with throwing strikes from the mound will help us reach our goal.”
... The Olympians bring back 11 seniors into Coach Joe Marykwas’ fifth season. Last year, Thorpe finished 10-11 with a third consecutive trip to the district tournament.
... The Olympians will send nine players to toe the rubber this spring. Senior Richie Strack is set to be the No. 1 with the rest of the order yet to be determined. Strack returns from an injury that cut his last season short after solid performances against defending 2021 district champions Schuylkill Haven and Panther Valley, the eventual 2022 D11 champs. “Richie pitched very well for us last summer on our American Legion team,” said Marykwas. “He’s mentally tough on the mound and throws strikes at the corners with his three pitches.” Adam Romanchik throws an array of off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance. Junior Jack Edwards also holds several pitches in his arsenal. Ian Henkels, Garrett Lienhard, Tanner Yurchak, Chip Baldassano, Matt Craigie, and Matt Domski will also see action on the bump.
... Marykwas likes his lineup, which is built with both speed and power. Henkels, who batted .332 last season, Baldassano and Lienhard can motor around the bases. Lienhard, Strack, Edwards, and Nicholas Schwartz have power to the gaps. “We should be much improved at the plate this year,” said Marykwas. “We only lost two starters from last yea,r and many of these hitters gained valuable experience facing varsity pitching.”
... With their pitchers throwing to contact, the Olympians will rely on a strong defense, and Marykwas believes he has just that. “Garret Lienhard might just be the best shortstop in the Schuylkill League.” When not pitching, Strack is fundamentally sound manning the hot corner. Yurchak and Evan Murphy cover the right side with Edwards filling at third and first. “I think our outfield of Romanchik, Baldassano, and Henkels is right at, or near the top, of the best in our league.”
THE TIME IS NOW
... With a senior-heavy squad, Marykwas is excited about how his team will compete this year. “There certainly will be some very good baseball teams we’ll face, but I’m confident we can be in the running for a division and league title, and our ultimate goal is to make a run in the district tournament.”
READY FOR ANOTHER RUN
... The Blue Bombers bring back eight players into Coach Tyler Svetik’s second season after a 15-9 spring and a run to the district finals against Panther Valley last year.
... From their 12-man varsity roster, Svetik can run out eight or nine players to the mound. The top three begin with Luke Netznik, an Albright commit. “He didn’t throw a lot innings last year, but he was 3-0. Luke throws strikes, and he brings a ton of energy to the field when he pitches and when he plays second base.” Senior Chase Ralph pitched effectively in relief a season ago, and will be counted on for starts this year. Junior Jacob Grammes is fairly new to pitching. “He’s a big kid who’s been working hard this winter. He’ll have to shoulder a big load, but we’re excited about what we’ve seen so far.”
HIT AND RUN
... The Bombers expect to use their speed to get runners into scoring position. “We’ll be aggressive on the bases and play some small ball.” Batting .300 with 21 RBIs last year is Cole Serfass - a Mansfield commit, and one of the best catchers in the area. Svetik plans to bat Serfass in the No. 3 hole. Senior center fielder Daniel Lucykanish stole nine bases from the top of the lineup, while Grammes batted over .300 from the middle to the end of the season. “Lucykanish has a ton of wheels, and Jacob is a really good two-strike hitter.”
SOUND MIDDLE GROUND
... Svetik says his team’s defensive strength is up the middle. Serfass behind the plate is excellent at blocking balls in the dirt. Grammes - at shortstop - and Netznik - at second base - can turn the double play, and Lucykanish can run balls down in the outfield gaps.
... The Bombers hope to repeat last year’s success despite having a large roster turnover. “Once the season starts, we’ll get a good look at what we have and like last year, we hope to be playing our best baseball at the end of the season. From what I see so far, I think we can be right where we were last year in getting to districts, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
... Gerald Kresge takes over a Bulldog program that won just two games last year. Roster numbers are up to 29, but only one is a returning senior and half are freshmen.
ON THE JOB TRAINING
... As it will be for pretty much every position, the pitching rotation will be a work in progress. Sophomore Conner Simms will see time on the hill. “He’s a very capable ball player with a good arm, and has shown an ability to throw strikes,” said Kresge. Junior Nick Buskirk is a hard thrower. Senior Tyler Fenstermaker and junior Conner Martinez will also have opportunities to take the ball.
... Kresge’s lineup will feature hitters who are big in size, although Buskirk will bring speed to the bases. Center fielder Jack Tosh is tall, runs well, and hits the ball hard from the left side. The starting catcher is freshman Brayden Buskirk. Simms and Martinez will be counted on to drive in runs. “We’ll be looking for some lightning in a bottle, and hope to get some power from our size and from any part of our lineup.”
STRONG AT THE CORNERS
... From what Kresge has seen so far, he likes his corner infielders - Simms at third base and Martinez at first - for their defensive skill sets. Freshman Christopher Vargas has enormous upside in all facets of the game. Like other young players, he will get repetitions on both the junior varsity and varsity teams. “We need to improve a lot in our defensive play,” said Kresge. “We want to get better every game, and experience will help us determine what our team will look like as the season goes along.”
... “We don’t talk about winning. We talk about learning how to play the game,” said Kresge. “Baseball is hard to play well, and learning will lead to winning once we get experience and improvement. Our kids have a great attitude and when we evaluate their performances, we will keep their heads up by emphasizing the positive.”
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
... With the loss of 90 innings on the mound, along with its No. 3 and No. 4 hitters in the lineup, Northwestern took some lumps on graduation day last spring. Even with the holes, second-year coach Chad Cooperman believes there is enough left to improve on a 14-9 record from last season. “There is always something you must replace, but this year it seems like a lot. I am confident in our upper classmen coming back because we had five sophomores who played last season and they are a year older, a year more mature and a year bigger, and I am looking for a lot from them.”
... The Tigers do have a key battery combination returning in junior catcher Justin Augustus and junior pitcher/first baseman Josh Lichman. Augustus hit .424 in 17 games last season and developed into a strong catcher defensively, while Lichman pitched in seven games and posted a 2.63 ERA. Augustus had played infield and outfield his freshman year before moving behind the plate as a sophomore. “My whole life I have played just about anywhere, and I can play any position on the field, so wherever I’m needed, I can compete,” said Augustus about his role.
THE PITCHING FACTORY
... From Carter Welch in 2021 to Ben Boyer last season, Northwestern has a history of finding guys who can pitch and while the losses on the pitching side were deep, there are younger pitchers in addition to George, who look to fill those open innings. “We bring back four pitchers who have between seven and 20 varsity innings under their belt from last year, and we have seen them develop a lot over the offseason. They are even better this year than they were last year at this point,” said Cooperman. “I am looking forward to seeing how Wes (George), Shaun (O’Donnell), Josh (Lichman), and Chase (Moyer) do on the mound and take on a premier spot like we need them to do.”
... In looking to repeat as Colonial League champions last season, Northwestern fell just short with a semifinal loss to Southern Lehigh. As they come back with a strong group of players who look to get at least the league title back in New Tripoli, they will need younger players to step up and senior Wes George is confident that they will. “I like how motivated we are to win this year. We have a young team, and we can compete with any team in the league.”
... The team opened with a 4-3 win at Freedom on Friday. Junior Robert Croneberger delivered a two-run double for Northwestern, and George threw three shutout innings on the mound with five strikeouts. Shaun O’Donnell also delivered three innings to get the win for Northwestern. The win came about just the way Cooperman figures the team will need to win games this season with multiple guys working from the mound. “I think we are going to be a lot more balanced this year instead of having one guy to look to. We will have guys all increase their innings.”
HOW TO MAKE IT WORK
... The Blue Raiders suffered through a tough 4-16 season a year ago, but there is a lot of optimism in the early spring camp. Longtime head coach Jeff Reading sees a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for the program.
... Just two starters have departed from the 2022 season, those being Tom Case and Mason Moyer. That leaves plenty of experience returning this year.
BACK IN THE FOLD
... The squad is loaded with veterans, which finds Tim Fritzinger (.250 P, 1B), Lucas Milot (.254 P, SS), Chase Andrews (.333 3B), Ryan Vecolitis (.241 P, 3B) Wyatt Steigerwalt (.302 P, 2B), Lucas Kamant (.286 OF) Cian McLaughlin (.143 OF) Luke Kane (.263 C) Mason Ligenza (.317 P, OF, 1B), Cooper Ansbach (.167 P, INF), Noah Mateyak (.333 P, 1B, OF), Nate Fannock (.200 P, OF) all returning after seeing playing time in 2022.
... Reading is anxious to see how his first-year varsity players will fare. They include Parker Oswald (P, 3B), Blaise Gigli (P, OF), Declan Coleman (P, 1B) and Luke Frohnheiser (C).
ON THE BUMP
... Pitching is key to any team that strives for success. Tamaqua will look to returning standout Ligenza to lead the mound crew, with plenty of depth coming from Ansbach, Steigerwalt, Vecolitis, Milot and Fritzinger.
READING’S DUGOUT VIEW
... “With the nucleus of guys returning, there is a hunger for success, and to make a huge improvement from last year’s record,” said Reading, who has guided the Blue Raiders since 2002. “We were competitive in a majority of our games a season ago, and need to get over that hump and finish.”
... The team’s motto for the year is “Don’t celebrate the moment, celebrate the victory!”
... After COVID shut down every team in 2020, Marian suffered a losing record in 2021. The Colts’ proud baseball tradition rebounded a year ago, posting a solid 13-8 record under head coach Tony Radocha. Marian reached the semifinal round of the District 11 Class 2A playoffs.
... Radocha knows the big boppers in Division 3 of the Schuylkill Baseball League are still lurking, including the odds-on favorite to win the title - Panther Valley, which has a loaded lineup and a strong pitching staff. Also providing tough competition will be Shenandoah Valley, along witha vastly improved Mahanoy Area club.
... Marian lost only two players to graduation - both starters. Mason Gibson held down a pair of positions when he wasn’t on the bump, while Walter Pavlilk was an underrated outfielder who was very dependable game in and game out.
... The Colts hope the No. 8 will keep them from behind the eight-ball. That’s the number of season-tested players who are eager to continue the winning ways for the program. There are four potential arms to get the starting nod on the hill - Brian Hinkle (INF/P), Chase Petrilyak (OF/P), Jake Bobish (INF/P) and Andrew Baran (OF/P). Looking to complete the battery are veteran catcher Joey Walko and Lachlan Segedy, who is versatile enough to also play infield. There are also a pair of athletes who bring grit to the lineup in Michael Gelatko and Matt Martin.
THE WATCH LIST
... Radocha’s newest additions finds Cory Nolasco (INF/OF/P), Kaiden Nolasco (INF/P), Chris Chambers (OF), Rawlin Melendez (INF), Dylan Zullo, (INF/P), Brandon Klitsch (INF/P), Nate Davidovich (OF) and Cole DeFranciso (OF/P) hoping to contribute to a winning season.
... “Losing 2020, it almost felt like we were starting the program over. Last year was a nice step in doubling our win total, and making it to districts,” said Radocha. “With almost the entire team coming back, we hope to be able to compete every day, and put ourselves in the situation to be playing meaningful games in May. If we can develop some pitching depth, we feel we can have a solid and productive season.”
IT’S GO TIME
... Pleasant Valley - which has dropped to Class 5A in District 11 - is anxious to get its season underway. With the breaks in the weather, PV has had the chance to practice outside before the season begins. “We’ve had an opportunity to get outside right away, at least with the first couple of days, which is very unusual,” head coach TJ Murphy said. “I think that’s the first time since I’ve been the head coach that we’ve had that opportunity. We’re limited on practice time. I am a bit concerned we’re not where we should be, but I kind of feel like that every year, so we’ll see how it goes.”
... Pleasant Valley finished the 2022 season with a solid 14-6 record. PV lost to Emmaus in the first round of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference playoffs, and also to state runner-up Liberty in districts. Murphy is confident his team will figure things out for this season. “Our kids know how to compete,” Murphy said. “We have some older kids who have graduated. We have some younger kids that are going to be expected to step up and really produce some quality at-bats. We should have good defense on the field and some arms on the mound, so we’ll see how it works out.”
RETURNERS AND LOSSES
... The two biggest losses for the Bears are catcher Andrew Meitzler and infielder Dominc Payan. PV does have two seniors, and three-year starters, in Nathan Loch and Jack Smale. “They’ve produced since they’ve been sophomores,” Murphy said about Loch and Smale. “I absolutely need them to do that again this year.” As far as the pitching rotation goes, Murphy will have brothers Nate and Ben Mostosky at the top. Junior Mike Konopke also threw some innings for the Bears last season. Blake Walters led PV in innings last year, but is recovering from an injury and is not expected to start the season, though he may be ready in a few weeks.
... The Bears will have some new faces on the field for the 2023 season. Freshman Ty Borger is expected to throw some innings for Pleasant Valley. Murphy is also high on Cole Henry and the possible opportunity presented to him. “He’s shown that he’s trying to compete for a spot in the starting lineup,” Murphy said about Henry. “He certainly has that opportunity.”
... There is a lot of uncertainty in PV’s starting lineup, but Murphy says one thing is certain. Outside of Loch and Smale, everyone else is relatively new. The Mostosky brothers have limited experience in hitting. “I was sitting in the office with my assistant coach and one of my seniors,” Murphy said. “We were trying to talk about lineups and stuff, and kind of just bouncing some things off of each other to get a player perspective as well. From the offensive side of the plate, I’m not sure what to expect. I am slightly concerned. I’m hoping we can have some kids step up.”
... Steph Yurchak takes over the reigns at Weatherly, and faces the challenge of his Wreckers playing in a talented Schuylkill League Division 3. Yurchak, along with his brother Andrew Ray Yurchak, is excited for the challenge.
... Last year, the Wreckers struggled to find wins (1-18) but have paid the price in terms of becoming veterans for 2023. The optimism is more than just a thought, as eight of nine starters are on the lineup card this time around, with the lone loss being catcher Frank Willis, who was a solid athlete and reliable backstop.
SEASONED VETS LEADING
... The eight returnees are now seniors, and they hope to make an impact. Returning to center field is Nathan Tripp, while Dylan Buck is at first, and Ismail Zubari will move behind the plate, although he can also play in the field. Double-duty players find Tanner Hinkle in left or in the infield, Tucker Hollowell at first or outfield, and Wyatt Higgins at one of the infield positions. Adding depth is senior Ian McLaurin, who did not play last spring. Junior Jack James, who hit .360 a season ago, is back at shortstop, while another junior with experience - Klaus Eroh - adds depth at catcher. Sophomore outfielder Michael Davies also brings experience to the Wrecker squad.
... Weatherly has four new faces vying for playing time. Junior Brandon Fisher (IF), sophomores Ivan Wilkinson (OF) and Ryan Breslosky (IF) and freshman Raymond Montz (IF) should add much needed bench support.
LOOKING TO IMPROVE
... “We have a chance to do some damage this year. We have a lot of returners who are hungry to improve from last season, which was a down year for the program. We have the potential for a big turnaround for this season, and I think our leadership and experience could carry us to the playoffs,” Yurchak said.
(Compiled by Sam Matta, Chuck Hixson, Kyle Magda and Rich Strack)