The Pitt-Johnstown baseball team enters the PSAC Tournament today with confidence and momentum.
The Mountain Cats won their final four games of the regular season to clinch the PSAC West Division’s No. 3 seed. UPJ will face PSAC East No. 2 seed Bloomsburg University at 3:30 p.m. today at Kelly Automotive Park in Butler.
Overall, coach Todd Williams’ team finished on an 11-3 run to secure a .500 record at 22-22. Not bad for a team that lost its first five games and stood at 3-9 and 6-13 early in the season.
“We finished winning 11 of our last 14,” Williams said. “That shows us that we got hot at the right time. I attribute it all to our plan of attack this year. We’ve had the toughest schedule we’ve ever had to start a season, and that made this group seasoned. They’re able to handle any pressure that comes their way. We were down 2-1 in the top of the seventh inning with two outs and nobody on (in the regular-season finale at Gannon). We ended up scoring three runs to win the game. They don’t quit. They get after you.”
Bloomsburg is 28-18 with a school-record 20-8 PSAC East record. The Huskies are ranked sixth in the NCAA Atlantic Region but have dropped three straight entering the tournament.
“We’ve embraced the team concept of getting hot at the right time and having everything come together,” said UPJ senior pitcher Derek Younker, who is tabbed as today’s starter. “We weren’t exactly hitting the ball well but we were winning games when we had to at one point. Now, it all seems to be clicking. We’re pitching well and we have the hitting.”
Younker and senior John Fees front the pitching staff.
Also known locally as a AAABA League and AAABA Tournament standout, Younker has a 22-11 career record with a 3.49 ERA and 111 strikeouts. Fees is 20-14 with 182 strikeouts. The Cambria Heights graduate was named PSAC co-Pitcher of the Week on Monday based on his three-hit shutout win over Gannon.
“Fees and Younker have been the anchors of our staff for the last three years. They’re seasoned veterans,” Williams said of the right-handers. “They’ve been through the wars. The pitching staff is coming on strong. Brian Socol, our closer most of the year, is emerging as a starter. We have several young pitchers who are emerging. Stone Rice of North Star and Tyler Black of Bedford are coming on strong. Rylan Schnably, a senior, went out and threw well in the last game. They’re all ready to go.”
Socol is a junior. Rice and Black are freshmen.
“We’re very confident in our pitching staff,” said Younker, who is 7-4 this season. “It’s been there all year. We have to have that confidence that not only is everybody going to pitch well, but we’re going to get good defense behind us and we’ll have run support.”
On Tuesday, UPJ produced two PSAC All-Conference players in senior catcher Kyle Morrow, a First-Team All-PSAC West pick, and junior outfielder Brett Marabito, a second-team selection of the league coaches.
Morrow was a 2013 NCBWA third-team All-American. He hit .349 with two homers and 20 RBI during the regular season while leading the Cats with a .490 slugging percentage and 52 hits, including a team-high 15 doubles. Marabito was named the PSAC West Player of the Week of April 14 after going 9-for-9 with 10 RBI in a doubleheader against IUP. He batted .323 with six doubles, two triples and 17 RBI in 42 regular season games.
Williams said UPJ has overcome injuries and the occasional slump.
“The offense, we were nicked up and banged up. We lost several key players for the year,” the veteran coach said. “The 10 guys who have been playing have been working hard and putting in time on their own. They’re doing all the little things to get better and better.
“We had five straight hits to open the game at Gannon after spending five hours on the bus.”
Williams said his players have had extra motivation.
“The kids had a chip on their shoulder all year when they were picked to come in next to last,” Williams said, referring to the PSAC preseason poll that had the Mountain Cats seventh of eight teams in the West. “They took that to heart and wanted to prove everybody wrong for picking us there.”
Bloomsburg will end a long drought in the tournament.
“Bloomsburg hasn’t been in there for 18 years so they’re going to be hungry too,” Williams said. “It’s going to be a matter of who goes out and performs on that day.”
While the intensity level will increase, Younker said the UPJ mind-set will remain the same.
“It’s another game. You take the same mental approach, the same physical approach. Why change now?” Younker said. “Whatever is working for you all season, you stick to it. We’ve been working hard and getting results. Why would we make it any different?”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.