The foundation for Wyoming Valley West’s state tournament run was built after two medical issues.
What began as a run of rotten luck for the Spartans has turned into a nine-game winning streak and a second straight trip to the state tournament.
Valley West is reasonably healthy headed into today’s 4 p.m. showdown against Pennridge in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals at Parkland High School.
That wasn’t the case at the end of April when the Spartans lost senior Joe Pechulis and freshman Ryan Hogan from the middle of their lineup. At the time, their returns were uncertain.
It was during that stretch that they lost back-to-back games to Tunkhannock and Wyoming Area to fall to 4-5 on the season.
“Then,” Spartans coach John Milius said, “I saw a change.”
And how. Valley West won its next three games by a combined score of 27-2 and followed it up with a confidence-boosting win on the road over division favorite Berwick.
“They started believing in each other,” Milius said. “Not one or two guys. They weren’t waiting for one or two guys to produce. They said, ‘Hey, I gotta do it. I gotta do it. It’s on me. I gotta produce.’ And it came together as a team.”
Fortunately for the Spartans, they still had the bulk of last year’s lineup that won the District 2 crown and a game in the state tournament.
Senior Matt Labashosky filled in Pechulis’ spot at third base admirably, hitting .440 in nine regular season games. Nick Hogan, Mike Leonard and Evan McCue in particular saw their numbers at the plate spike as the calendar turned to May.
“We lost two big players, two impact players. But it really brought us together,” said senior Dan Flaherty, who pitched a complete-game shutout over Exeter on Monday in the first round of states.
“We really bonded. We came together like a family.”
The family wasn’t apart for long. Pechulis was ultimately able to return as a designated hitter, even slugging a home run in the regular season finale. Ryan Hogan has been the team’s top option off the bench, memorably clinching the district title for the Spartans with a pinch-hit double that brought home the winning run at PNC Field.
Altogether, the Spartans are hopeful that the experience will help them get over the quarterfinal hump.
This is third trip to the second round of states for the program under Milius. The Spartans fell to Parkland in 2009 at Pine Grove and lost to Hatboro-Horsham last season at Parkland High School, the site of today’s game.
Like last year, the opponent is the runner-up out of District 1. Pennridge (19-7) lost its district title game last week but knocked off defending state champion La Salle College by an 11-4 score on Tuesday.
In that game, the Rams pounded out an impressive 19 hits — all singles — to oust the Explorers. Valley West had only three hits in the first round, but it was enough for a 2-0 win.
The gradual improvement of the Spartans’ pitching staff is another reason their season is still going. Flaherty and Chris Nixon — today’s likely starter — went the distance in each of the team’s first three postseason games. Combined, they have allowed just five runs on 11 hits in that stretch for an ERA of 1.84.
Most importantly, the pitching and defense have been strongest when tested.
Valley West overcame a late rally by Scranton in the district finals and a bases-loaded jam against Exeter on Monday. The Spartans have allowed just one run in the last 14 innings.
“They were (calm),” Milius said of his players after beating Exeter. “We go over situations every day. We put ‘em in the pressure cooker. In the heat, we (run) sprints. If you don’t function, if you don’t answer, you do sprints as a team. As a team. Not just whoever screwed up.
“They’ve pulled together, and it’s worked out that way.”