The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

April 16, 2013

Mountain Cats no strangers to adversity


mmastovich@tribdem.com

JOHNSTOWN — The Pitt-Johnstown baseball team has faced plenty of adversity this season. So, why should the fact that the Mountain Cats must finish on an extraordinary run to keep their postseason hopes intact create any additional pressure?

This season, UPJ is accustomed to dealing with tough breaks, numerous injuries, illnesses, health issues and more than its share of narrow defeats.

Veteran Mountain Cats coach Todd Williams isn’t complaining or asking for sympathy as his team prepares for an important WVIAC doubleheader on Wednesday at Davis & Elkins.

There’s no time to wonder, “What if?”

“We battled,” Williams said after a pivotal doubleheader sweep of Alderson-Broaddus on Saturday afternoon at Point Stadium. “That’s all we do. That’s our goal – battle, battle, battle.”

The Cats have battled the opposition as well as the injury bug while going 19-16, 10-13 in WVIAC North play. Eight of those conference losses came by one run.

“It’s been rough,” said freshman third baseman Nate Negri, who received unexpected playing time Saturday due to a freak leg injury suffered by regular starter Jeff Campbell during pregame warm-ups. Yes, it’s been that kind of season.

“There have been a lot of changes, but we’ve stuck through it and stuck together,” said Negri, who responded with a three-run homer over the left-field screen that propelled UPJ to a 6-5 win in Saturday’s second game. “We’ve made the most out of it.”

Williams, his coaching staff and players have done a tremendous job dealing with the uncertainty.

On Saturday, pitcher John Fees was out to a solid start in a Game 1 win over Alderson-Broaddus. But Williams said Fees suddenly became too ill to pitch and left the game after the fourth inning. The bullpen finished the job in a 5-3 win.

“Guys are up there chasing foul balls,” Williams said, pointing to his injured players in the stands and press box. “(Nate) Sabados is out, Rylan (Schnably) is out. (Steve) Bender is out. (Elliot) Chamberlain is out. (Jeff) Campbell is out. (Kyle) Morrow is playing with two bad groins and can’t run. Fees is getting sick in the middle of the game.

“Campbell got hit in the pregame on the kneecap with the baseball and it swelled up and stiffened up so we had to put a freshman (Negri) in at third. We have to mix and match and make it work. We’re just trying to get through the injuries.”

UPJ’s chances took another hit on Sunday as Alderson-Broaddus won a 14-9 slugfest in the series finale at the Point.

Still, there are positives resulting from UPJ’s juggling act.

Inadvertently, the Cats are building depth and gaining game experience on a roster that includes only three seniors. That bodes well for the future.

In the short-term, this gritty group is making a legitimate run to get back into playoff contention in the WVIAC.

Granted, UPJ will nearly have to win out in conference play. But there still is hope during what once seemed like a lost season.

“As a pitcher, it’s been weird having different players behind you,” said junior right-hander Derek Younker, who picked up his fifth win on Saturday. “But we came together as a team. Baseball is a weird game. We’ve had all kinds of things thrown at us and we’ve come through. Hopefully, the rest of the way, we’ll keep coming through.”

Williams likes that line of thinking. He frequently smiled while talking after the doubleheader sweep on Saturday.

“That shows heart and that’s what I’m looking for,” Williams said. “You’ve got to keep playing no matter what. Injuries are part of the game. We’re getting besieged with them, but we’ve got to keep playing.”

UPJ started the season 5-1 and was 10-3 before injuries took a toll and led to a run of 12 losses in 19 games entering last weekend.

“We have to win,” Williams said. “If we win four out of five, we’re right back in the thick of things.”

Now, those are the type of more conventional numbers a coach likes to think about.

At least those projections are better than the details on an injury report.



Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.