When the Altoona Area High School baseball coaching staff went to Pittsburgh last week to scout the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game that would produce its first-round interdistrict playoff opponent in its winner, it turned out the Mountain Lions were getting a lot of bang for their travel buck.
In addition, they got a sneak peek at Mount Lebanon, too, which has turned out to be the team they'll be taking on today at 4 p.m. at Somerset Area High School in a bid to make what is believed to be their first-ever trip to the PIAA final four.
"We think the scouting helped us a little bit against Seneca Valley,'' Lion coach Tom Smith said, referring to the team Altoona beat in the first round, 9-4, on Monday. "As far as Mount Lebanon, we were able to see they were a team pretty much like us. They like to bunt. They have a little bit more team speed. They like to run. They try to manufacture some runs.
Mirror file photo by Gary M. Baranec
Altoona coach Tom Smith will lead the Mountain Lions into their PIAA second-round state playoff game today.
"How much that comes into play remains to be seen, but we were able to see them one game, see their hitters and see some of their pitchers. I think it benefited us.''
The Central softball and Philipsburg-Osceola baseball teams also will be in action today.
The District 7 runner-up Blue Devils, like Altoona, are in the state tournament for the first time since 2006 and bring a 15-9 record into today's contest. Mount Lebanon is keyed by the top three hitters in its lineup - center fielder Luky Hagy, third baseman Anthony Paladino and shortstop Ian Happ. Happ, who is headed to the University of Cincinnati, entered states batting .500.
If Altoona's scouting proves reliable, Lion senior catcher Anthony Lombardo figures to shoulder a big defensive load.
"I've been working on our bunt plays, our first-and-third plays. I'm getting prepared for them to run,'' Lombardo said. "I'm just trying to make sure I do a good job back there.''
Smith is going to start junior right-hander Ben Wyland on the mound. Wyland comes in with a 4-0 record, three complete games and a 2.58 ERA.
However, if Wyland gets into trouble, the Lions have plenty of pitching in reserve thanks to Christian Helsel's ability to go the distance on Monday against Seneca Valley. Junior Alec Lytle (5-2, 1.37) and senior Jason Douglas (3-0, 2.92), both righties, are well rested and available.
Altoona (16-5) and Mount Lebanon each came a win from meeting up in the state semifinals in 2006. The Lions also got to the quarterfinals in 2001, but they have yet to make it any further.
"I think we really came together as a team. Our pitching and defense have been lights out throughout the playoffs, in fact all season. Actually, our pitching's been awesome,'' Lombardo said. "It definitely raised our confidence to beat the WPIAL champs like that. We knew we were going to have to bring our A game.''
Smith, though, is preaching against overconfidence as the Lions come off a win over the team today's opponent fell against in the District 7 championship.
"We want some confidence, but we don't want them to be overconfident,'' Smith said. "They were down four runs in the last inning against Seneca Valley's best pitcher, and they scored two runs and had two guys on when the game ended. We know they're going to battle.
"Whoever loses is done. We don't want to lose. The kids are pumped up. If we play our game, I like our chances.''
SUBHED: Central carries banner
The Central softball team is in unfamiliar territory, having never advanced beyond the second round of districts before this season. However, with traditional powers and state finals regulars Philipsburg-Osceola, Bellefonte and Bald Eagle Area out of the state title hunt, the Lady Dragons and Class AAAA Central Mountain are the only representatives from the Mountain League remaining.
Central coach Dale Walters has found a lot of new allies as his team heads into today's 3 p.m. clash with District 7 champion Deer Lakes at St. Francis University. P-O's Jim Gonder and Bellefonte's Gregg Kohlhepp called him on Tuesday night to wish him luck and to share any scouting information or advice they could offer.
"I think they're doing anything they can to get somebody [from the league] there. That shows you how good of a league we have and how good of people and of coaches that we have,'' Walters said.
Deer Lakes enters the quarterfinals with a 20-1 record, while Central is 18-6. The 14-1 first round win over Cranberry marked the 20th time this year the Lady Dragons have scored five runs or more, and Walters' lineup features five batters hitting .400 or better.
The Lady Lancers, meanwhile, have four players batting over .400, led by catcher Hannah Blinn, so there could be plenty of runs scored in Loretto. Deer Lakes also is playing in the state tournament for the first time.
Walters, though, isn't focusing much on the opposition.
"I've said ever since I've been a coach that you need to take care of yourself. If we do what we do and we do it well, let the chips fall where they may,'' Walters said. "I felt like one game this year we got beat. Every other game we lost this year, the opportunity was there for us to win the game.
"I think the state playoffs are actually easier for the kids because we don't have big crowds and we don't know anything about the opponents, so there's no preconceived notions. They're just going out and playing now.''
SUBHED: P-O heads east
The site for the Philipsburg-Osceola baseball team's game was just announced on Wednesday morning as Green Township Park in Scotland. The Mounties' opponent - District 11 champ Pine Grove - was determined on Tuesday afternoon.
The Cardinals are 21-6 and no stranger to the state playoffs, having reached interdistricts four times in seven years and six of the last 13. Six of their starters are seniors.
In the 11-0, five-inning first-round win over Springfield, Pine Grove pitcher Ty Zimmerman threw a five-hitter, while Kobe D'Agostino went 3-for-3.
The District 6 runner-up, P-O brings in a 19-5 record. Mike Marcinko leads the Mounties at the plate with a .486 average, 45 runs, eight triples and 28 stolen bases. Righty Parker Watson (5-2, 3.22) figures to get the start after Mark Curtis pitched a complete game in Monday's 5-4 win over Loyalsock.