Fittingly, this all-day showcase of District 2 baseball will conclude with two programs that are very comfortable in the spotlight.
Wyoming Valley West and Scranton have combined to win the last six district titles in Class 4A. And they will face each other in the championship for the third time in the past five seasons when the lights power on tonight at PNC Field.
“It sounds great,” Spartans coach John Milius said after his team dusted off Wallenpaupack in the semifinals. “We’re getting there. We’re doing it.”
The Spartans will be carrying the banner for their league on this Memorial Day as the last team standing from the Wyoming Valley Conference. Valley West and Scranton close out a four-game schedule today in Moosic at 7 p.m.
Lackawanna Trail and Old Forge (Class A) open the holiday at 10 a.m., followed by Lakeland and Mid Valley (Class 2A) at 1 p.m., and then Valley View and Abington Heights (Class 3A) at 4 p.m.
Valley West enters the nightcap on seven-game winning streak and with 11 victories in the last 13 games. After a rocky start to the WVC season, Milius is happy with how his team responded.
“I was like a bear (early on). I was real picky with them,” Milius said. “They were sitting back, but now they’re coming out playing.”
Under Milius, the Spartans have won the district title in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012. Scranton took the crown in 2010 and 2011. Valley West’s 2008 title, as well as Scranton’s in 2011, came after losses to District 4 Williamsport in the finals.
The Spartans beat the Knights 11-1 in the 2009 district finals and 4-1 in last season’s championship game.
Seven of the 10 players who appeared on the lineup card last May are back for the Spartans. All of them started in their 15-4 win on Wednesday, erasing memories of the three straight losses to open the season in which the Spartans scored just six runs.
“The first three games, we just came out flat,” Milius said. “We couldn’t put anything together. We were like fat cats (because) we had a good run last year, and most of these kids are back.”
That began to change with a 4-2 win over Coughlin in the fourth game as the Spartans got contributions from up and down the lineup for the rest of the schedule.
Players like Nick Hogan, Mike Leonard, Chris McCue, Evan McCue, Joe Pechulis and Jeremy Sabecky led the team at the plate. Veteran starters like Dan Flaherty, Colin Harrison and Ricky Stayer brought stability. Freshman Ryan Hogan added some power.
When Pechulis suffered a thumb injury midway through the season, Matt Labashosky stepped in at third base and hit .440 in nine regular season games. Pechulis has since returned to the lineup as a designated hitter.
The graduation of two key players from the 2012 team — top pitchers Tommy Alexander and Matt Zielen — initially created question marks on the mound for the Spartans.
But like the rest of the squad, the pitching staff rounded into form before long, with Flaherty, Chris Nixon and Billy Gregory all playing important roles.
“They threw a lot of J.V. games, Flaherty and Nixon, but varsity and J.V. are two different things,” Milius said. “But these two kids are coming on. They’re doing fine. They’re maturing as the season’s going on, they’re getting more confident.
“They start believing in each other, and that’s what it’s all about.”
In the other dugout, Scranton looks much different from the team that faced the Spartans in last year’s finals. Only two starters from that game — Jonathan Palochko and Jake McCarthy — are playing for the Knights now.
That turnover helped explain why Scranton stumbled down the stretch in the Lackawanna League season, dropping five of six entering the playoffs.
And yet, the Knights are back in the title game after going on the road and beating Hazleton Area and Williamsport by a combined score of 16-5.
Colin Maldonato and Kraigen Rasalla each pitched a complete game to push Scranton on through. The Knights are also hitting as well as they have all season.
“We started putting some good swings on it,” Scranton coach Jamie Higgins said after knocking off Hazleton Area. “Thankfully there were some guys on base.”