A week off before the start of the district playoffs. Five days between the semifinals and championship. It’s been another week since winning the district title.
Fortunately for Wyoming Valley West, the team is getting used to this.
The Spartans last played on Memorial Day, breaking a tie with two outs in the bottom of the seventh to win the championship. That’s plenty of time to dwell on the opening round of the PIAA Class 4A tournament.
Spartans coach John Milius is happy with his team’s mindset headed into today’s 4:30 p.m. game at Pittston Area Primary Center.
“You’ve just gotta keep ‘em focused,” Milius said. “You try and keep them thinking baseball and keep it light. Just a relaxed atmosphere. You let ‘em have fun one day and another day you work hard and then lighten it up at the end of practice.
“You’re not going to change anything they’re doing already. It’s the end of the season. It’s about muscle memory and getting everything down, not about changing things around.”
Today’s opponent is District 3 runner-up Exeter. That would be Exeter Township in Berks County, a school that has played in the state tournament before but had never reached the District 3 title game until last Thursday.
Scoreless in the bottom of the sixth, the Eagles bobbled a grounder with two outs, allowing the game’s only run to score in a 1-0 loss to Lower Dauphin.
A tough way to lose any game, much less the district finals. Even still, the Eagles (17-8) are flying high in their first appearance in states since 2007. That’s because they entered the district tournament as the No. 15 seed in a 16-team bracket.
Exeter managed to upset No. 2 Red Land before knocking off a pair of fellow low seeds in No. 10 Chambersburg and No. 14 Dallastown to clinch a spot in states. District 3 sends three teams to the PIAA bracket in Class 4A.
The Eagles’ resiliency means the Spartans won’t be taking them lightly. Exeter finished first in the Berks League’s top division in the regular season but lost in the quarterfinals of the conference playoffs, hurting their seeding for the district bracket.
Leadoff man Derian Sarlat is north of .400 hitting on the season for the Eagles. Ben Bortz, who started on the mound for Exeter in that district title game, is at .351 with 21 RBI. Those two have done a good job setting the table for Alex Dundore, who leads the team with 25 RBI while hitting just shy of .400. All three are seniors.
Joe Richie and Bortz are the top candidates take to the mound today. Valley West will decide between Dan Flaherty, who started and won the district semifinal against Wallenpaupack, or Chris Nixon, who threw a two-hitter against Scranton in the finals.
But for the Spartans, who had to replace their top two pitchers from last year, it’s a nice problem to have.
“Oh, absolutely,” Milius said. “After losing two quality pitchers last year and the way we started off (the season), they’ve really come around.
“I love being in that position to pick one, and then (coming off) a short week, if he gets in trouble, you can pull him and have another guy ready.”
Valley West is making its fourth PIAA appearance in eight seasons under Milius. The Spartans are 2-3 in the state tournament during that stretch.
They lost a first-round heartbreaker to Cumberland Valley in 2007. When they returned to states in 2009, they beat Central Dauphin before bowing out to Parkland in the quarterfinals. Last season they topped Penn Manor in the opening round and lost to Hatboro-Horsham in the second.
Seven of the 10 players who started for Valley West in that last state tournament game will suit up for the Spartans today. Veterans like Joe Pechulis and Colin Harrison have swung the bat well in the first two postseason games.
First-year starters like Jeremy Sabecky and Chris McCue are also off to good starts at the plate. Freshman Ryan Hogan stole the show last week, hitting a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the seventh to win district gold for the Spartans.
“You just hope you put the ball in play and don’t make mental mistakes,” Milius said. “You’re gonna have errors, but the mental errors you’ve gotta stay away from.”