Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Canon-Mac & Peters Township: the WPIAL's best baseball rivalry

Tensions ran high Monday at McDowell Field in Canonsburg when the best rivalry in WPIAL baseball was on display. Canon-McMillan and Peters Township played a back-and-forth game for nine innings that ended with the Indians coming out as the winners.

There was a collision at home plate, words were exchanged, two close plays at home plate that ended with the Big Macs missing out on two runs and the level of talent is a reminder that the Section 5-AAAA rivalry is one of the best.

Both teams have lineups that are a headache for opposing teams to match up against and with Peters Township now sitting atop the standings, it was two of the classification’s best playing each other.

Peters Township’s batting order has three left-handed hitters who can hit the ball to the opposite field and possess big time power. Right fielder Mitch Bianco is the most notable and he made an impact against Canon-McMIllan. Bianco reached base three times, including a double and a run scored.

Designated hitter Tim Swoope has been on fire the past two weeks with power to the gaps and it was much of the same against the Big Macs when he went 2-for-4 with three runs scored, two doubles and a run batted in.

Phil Mary is the Indians’ No.9 hitter and that should say a lot about the strength of Peters Township’s lineup. Mary hit .417 last year as a sophomore. Defensively, the Indians are one of the WPIAL’s best with an incredible middle infield. Second baseman Phil Pisarcik and shortstop Ryan Tassone are great defensively; and bring a lot at the plate.

Canon-McMillan is no slouch either. Its batting order is scary. Left-handed Chandler Palyas is the Big Macs’ lead-off hitter and the team’s second and third batters in the order are what stump coaches when it comes time to make a pitching change late in the game.

Teagan Piechnick, a right-handed hitter, already has six home runs this season and is a threat to go deep every time he steps to the plate. Following him in the order is junior center fielder Jared Beach, who is a left-handed hitter that will have scouts following him around until he makes a college decision.

Piechnick hit a two-run home run against Peters Township and drove in two runs; and also drew three walks. The Big Macs’ talents are not limited to the top of the order as the bottom three guys had a great showing in the rivalry game.

Senior catcher Buzz Boggio went 2-for-4 with a solo home run, designated hitter Dustin Bernardi drew three walks, went 1-for-2 and scored twice; and sophomore shortstop Connor Coleman went 3-for-5 with two runs scored.

Talent is a plenty for both teams, including young pitchers who are throwing well early in the season. It will be interesting to see Canon-McMillan and Peters Township’s next game on May 2.

It could decide who takes home the section title and will surely be just as chippy as Monday’s game.

Friday, April 11, 2014

McGuffey School Board makes right decision, renews Burchett's contract

Thursday was a reminder that a coach leading a program out of the shadows of mediocrity and successfully developing high school athletes is not always the most important thing in the eyes of parents.

McGuffey head coach Amanda Burchett, who has led the Highlanders’ girls basketball team to back-to-back state playoff appearances, had her contract renewed last night at the district’s school board meeting, but it was not without criticism.
A group of parents threatened to protest Burchett’s contract renewal with the goal of McGuffey getting a new girls basketball coach.

It doesn’t make much sense, right?
It certainly doesn’t when you consider Burchett’s close relationship with her players. Watch her interact with them and you’ll agree that parents suggesting she not be rehired is ludicrous.
Besides knowing the sport, relating to players and motivating them is critical in achieving success as a high school coach. Burchett has all of the above. She is a former O-R Girls Basketball Player of the Year, has been pivotal in the development of two-time O-R Player of the Year Sammie Weiss; and are we forgetting that McGuffey girls basketball had not reached the state playoffs since 1990 before she led her kids to that mark?
What about 25-straight section wins against competition such as Washington and Charleroi?
The threats of some parents turned out to be empty ones when a few did not show up to the meeting and the school board ultimately approved the Burchett’s rehire by a unanimous vote of 6-0.
In a time where school boards have knee-jerk reactions to parents’ concerns, it was welcoming news to hear McGuffey’s made the right decision by bringing back the coach who helped turn the program around and allowed the kids to have fun while doing so.
It’s sad that some find the need to stand up and protest when their child does not receive a certain amount of playing time or doesn't agree with a coaching decision. I’m not sure what these parents had issues with, but high school sports are filled with too many bleacher coaches – also known as parents -- who think they know more than the person hired to coach their kid’s team.
I covered a softball game recently in which a father was openly criticizing who his daughter’s head coach started at pitcher, how the coach should instruct kids on the finer points of defense and, of course, where and how much his daughter should be playing. You wouldn’t want to leave that last tidbit out of the argument, would you?
It’s laughable. If I were a betting man, I’d say the vast majority of kids would rather their parents stay out of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s complaints about playing time or if the person does not coach to the parents’ liking, there will always be those who think they can do a better job.
Not to be harsh, but the parents at McGuffey who stood up to criticize Burchett probably don’t know much about basketball. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post and Burchett’s contract renewal would have been a forgone conclusion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wash High football a team to reckon with in 2014

Wash High running back Malik Wells

It’s rare for a high school football team to lose one of the top offensive players in the state to graduation and return the next season stronger.

That’s the case with Wash High.

The Prexies are going to be loaded in 2014 with the return of senior quarterback Jonathan Spina and senior running back Malik Wells. The two make up the most athletic backfield in the conference and will be tough for teams to match up with.

Wells saw a lot of playing time as junior after Virginia Tech recruit Shai McKenzie suffered a torn ACL against Charleroi. The 5-8 running back helped Wash High overcome the loss of the school’s all-time leading rusher and will benefit from an offensive line that will feature a Division I prospect and several key returners.
Zach Blystone missed all but one game last season and is still gaining interest as a Division I prospect. Already receiving interest from Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College, the 6-2 two-way lineman impressed at the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, Texas, in early January. Blystone bench pressed 185 pounds 28 times, ran the 40-yard dash in 5.16 seconds and the shuttle in 4.4.

After being forced to sit all but one game after transferring from Charleroi, I’m sure Blystone will be motivated to use the frustration he gained from the WPIAL hearings and take it out on his opponents.

Wash High will be strong in the trenches, but the biggest question mark is at wide receiver after losing three seniors, including Quorteze Levy. A young group will look to fill Levy’s shoes in 2014 and the emergence of a few could make the Prexies a favorite to reach Heinz Field.

Prexies head coach Mike Bosnic has the reputation of developing young players and with a large stable of running backs to support Wells, including Jordan West, Wash High will likely use the running game to set up the pass.

They do have three returners at tight end, including Nate Swart, who has displayed his athleticism on the basketball court and for the Prexies’ track team. At 6-4 and weighing 210 pounds, he could cause matchup problems for opposing defenses. A player like that will help ease the transition of the departing playmakers on offense.

While questions remain, Bosnic will sort them out this summer when camp begins. I don’t know you, but I am anxiously awaiting Wash High’s matchup with new conference rival McGuffey, which returns running back James Duchi – one of the top offensive threats in Class AA.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

First annual Consol Energy Classic a success

The Washington Wild Things hosted a baseball tripleheader Saturday with four local teams headlining the event. Despite the cold weather, the sun was shining and the event featured three exciting games. While the WPIAL baseball season is a few weeks old, it felt like the Consol Energy Classic was the first true kickoff.

In the first game, Waynesburg senior Aaron Hill had incredible command of his changeup in a a stellar pitching performance to shut down Wash High. In the second, Canon-McMillan showed why they will be a team to be reckoned with again in the Quad-A playoff chase. The Big Macs' offensive talent will be tough to match. It was exciting to see some nice hitting against Brooke, W.Va., as the sun finally started to come out.

In the third game, Trinity persevered against a tough Wheeling Park team and came back from a three-run deficit. According to Hillers head coach Scott Henson and the Hillers players, Patriots starting pitcher Justice Jackson was just as impressive as Keystone Oaks ace Taylor Lehman, who Trinity faced the night before.

Jackson was throwing hard, and luckily for the Hillers, was pulled after three innings. That’s when Trinity’s bats capitalized with a three-run sixth inning and a walk-off double by Dominic Neff sent the Hillers home as winners.

The only disappointment of the day was the attendance at Consol Energy Park. With a strong slate of games, it was expected that students would come out to support, but that did not happen. It was a shame that three strong baseball games did not have the support that other sports receive.

While a Division I and major league prospect like Lehman was not on display, there was plenty of talent on the diamond that justified a large crowd. It was the first time the event was held, but will certainly not be the last. I know watching high school baseball isn’t the same as a trip to PNC Park, but that does not mean an event at a great venue like Consol should not be ignored.

The Final Four took place Saturday, which I’m sure will be considered next year, and despite the disappointing student turnout, it was a great day for baseball.

Friday, April 4, 2014

My take on the charter school debate

When Monessen head coach Joe Salvino spoke to The Valley Independent leading up to the WPIAL Class A Championship game regarding charter schools, he was criticized for stating that the Lincoln Parks of the WPIAL did not play by the rules. Salvino, who is known for never biting his tongue, strapped on his boxing mitts and delivered a gut shot to the charter school monster that lurks in the background of every small public school attempting to be successful in WPIAL basketball.

Administrators for charter schools criticized Salvino, while public school coaches across the WPIAL stood in unison to have Salvino’s back. Lincoln Park athletic director Mike Bariski called Salvino’s comments disgraceful and his head basketball coach, Mark Javens, pointed to the inevitable title game mismatch as Salvino’s reasoning.

Duh. Lincoln Park has three high-level Division I recruits, including one of Salvino’s former players, while Monessen had a group of kids with a rough knowledge of the game.

Salvino said what every coach in the WPIAL was thinking and on Tuesday, his comments proved to be more than one man’s thoughts on the debate. Bob Lombardi, director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the current arrangement charter schools operate under constitutes a “dual enrollment” status for charter school students that is not available to public schools.

 Charter school advocates say that it is the boosters who front the tuition for players, not the taxpayers., but these “boosters” aren’t filling up the gas tanks of buses taking these kids to learn about performing arts. Elijah Minnie was bussed 61 miles to Lincoln Park (Midland) from his home in Monessen. What about former West Mifflin star Ryan Skovranko? He was bussed 45 miles to and from Lincoln Park with the tax payers in his district footing the bill.

According to a study done by my friends in Ohio at the Akron Beacon Journal, who analyzed the cost of busing kids to charter schools, it costs about 44 percent more per child to deliver the charter school attendees door to door. While some folks in Monessen and West Mifflin are struggling to make ends meet, they’re helping Javens and Bariski buy a state championship ring.

You will be hard pressed to defend what schools like Lincoln Park are doing. When the Leopards wanted to establish themselves as a basketball powerhouse, they hired Javens, who previously coached and recruited at the Community College of Beaver County. How did Lincoln Park get Minnie? They had his former AAU teammate, Skovranko, do the “recruiting.” All it took was a few phone calls and a little convincing. If Chartiers Valley’s Matty McConnell called up a former teammate and backed the Colts as a potential destination for a fellow player, pitch forks and torches would be a plenty.

Not with charter schools though.

When I asked Bariski following the WPIAL title game about Salvino’s comments, he said Minnie was failing every class while at Monessen and now he is doing well. The argument is mute when you consider the actual reasoning for Minnie’s departure. He didn’t leave Monessen for grades. He left after getting in trouble and attending Summit Academy.

The problem is not limited to charter schools. Private schools such as Vincentian Academy and Sewickley Academy have the same competitive advantage over public schools. The solution won’t be a simple one, but schools like Lincoln Park, who want to be treated differently, should either compete amongst themselves or enrollment figures should not play a part in what classification they play in.

Why not put all of them in Quad-A? The simple answer: a state championship wouldn’t be as easy to earn as it was in Class A. In that regard, they want to be treated the same as public schools.

When the administrative meeting was held on Tuesday, Lombardi said it best: “From a competitive standpoint, charter schools have made obsolete any realistic competition with traditional public schools.”

Something tells me we won’t see potential solutions affecting private schools in the state, but this is the first in many discussions the PIAA will have regarding charter schools.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Interest in Peters Township's Owen growing by the day

Peters Township QB Cory Owen

The recruitment of Peters Township quarterback Cory Owen continues to heat up. Owen, who received his first Division I scholarship offer from Toledo on Feb. 1, has recently paid official visits to Ohio University, Boston College, Pitt and Penn State.

After passing for 501 yards and one touchdown and rushing for 762 yards with 10 more touchdowns, Owen’s stock has risen significantly. A three-year starter for the Indians, Owen can work as a pocket-passer or a dual-threat with the ability to throw on the run.

His visit to Ohio comes as no surprise. Scott Isphording, who was the first Toledo coach to express interest in Owen, joined the Bobcats’ coaching staff as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Look for an offer to come soon. The Mid-American Conference is becoming a spread offense-heavy league with schools recruiting dual-threat players to run their high scoring offenses.

That’s where Owen fits in. Facing some of the top competition in WPIAL Class AAAA, the 6-2 signal caller was able to extend the play and find the open receiver. Look for his passing stats to escalate in 2014 and for plenty of college recruiters to attend Peters Township’s games this fall.

The visits that intrigued me the most were Boston College and Penn State. The Eagles have been searching for a quarterback to fit head coach Steve Addazio’s scheme since he accepted the job following the 2012 season. Addazio, who is best-known for being the University of Florida’s offensive coordinator during the Tim Tebow era, loves opening up the offense with different packages that need a quarterback with the ability to work outside the pocket.

The Eagles should being building depth at the position. They did sign four-star dual-threat quarterback Darius Wade (Middletown, Del.), but after this coming season, they will only have two quarterbacks on the roster with only one having experience running the spread.

When I spoke to Owen in early February, he told me Pitt was looking at him to play defense, but Paul Chryst should consider him on offense. I know he is used to having a tall, strong armed guy leading his pro-style offense, but times are changing. It’s time for the Panthers to adapt.

I don’t know what to make of Penn State’s interest in Owen. James Franklin seems to be kicking the tires on a lot of WPIAL players and its unknown what type of offense he is looking to run. One thing is for certain: Owen will have several schools to choose from leading up to next year’s signing day.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Milchovich ready to lead Ringgold football program

I know Ringgold football fans wanted a big name to replace Matt Humbert as head football coach, but I believe Nick Milchovich is the right guy for the job. The former head coach at California, Charleroi and Peters Township was always hindered by taking over programs that needed a rebuilding effort.

That is not the case at Ringgold.

The Rams return quarterback Nico Law, junior running back Chacar Berry and an offensive line that will dominate the line of scrimmage. When I’ve asked about Milchovich around the area, the same response is floated around: great leader who will be able to attract a strong coaching staff. He is well-liked and knows the area like the back of his hand.

Those are traits that will pay dividends for Ringgold. His biggest challenge will be implementing an offense that suits the strengths of his football team and he’ll need to relate to the players the way Humbert did. His first task should be building a strong working relationship with Law, who saw Humbert as a mentor after spending countless hours watching game film with the former Rams’ coach.

It will be interesting to see if Ringgold can live up to the expectations that were built after last year’s team showed shades of brilliance during its playoff run. One thing is for certain: this team will score a lot of points on offense. Law will need to work with a new group of receivers and hopefully, won’t have to change the way he plays the game.

A new coach implementing a new offense can cause growing pains, which this Ringgold team cannot afford in a section that features Belle Vernon (coached by Humbert), Thomas Jefferson and a Trinity team that is set to improve on last year’s struggles.

I love where this program is heading. Ringgold athletic director Ron McMichael could have gone for a flashy hire, such as an assistant coach for a big time program, but chose a man that built Charleroi into a winner and who led Peters Township to the playoffs in his last season with the Indians.

Milchovich is no stranger when it comes to working with a strong quarterback. During his time with Peters Township, he helped developed Austin Hancock, who was a multi-dimensional threat for the Indians during his four years with the program. Running a multiple set offense, Milchovich has led a program to success in Quad-A’s toughest section.

During Milchovich’s time at Peters Township, it wasn’t the offense that was a cause for concern. It was a defense that missed assignments and had blown coverages against teams like Mt. Lebanon, which forced the coach to start running a 5-2 defense.

The Rams’ biggest goal over the next five months will be to become a stronger, faster football team with an emphasis in the weight room and on endurance drills. When I spoke to Milchovich just hours after he was offered the job, he pointed to strength as a key factor during his offseason conditioning program. In Class AAA, that hard work will need to pay off quickly.