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2024 WPIAL Class 3A baseball preseason analysis

It's difficult to find enough words to describe the 2023 Riverside baseball season.

It's hard to find the right words to describe how good the 2023 Riverside baseball season was.

The Panthers not only had a 25-0 record, but they also dominated the competition to win the Section 1, WPIAL, and PIAA championships.

Out of their 25 wins, they had eight shutouts, including a 4-0 win over Camp Hill in the PIAA 3A state title game.

Riverside scored double-digit runs 11 times and won by seven or more runs in 15 games.

The WPIAL championship win over Neshannock started off close but ended with a score of 8-1 in favor of the Panthers.

Will any teams come close to perfection in Class 3A this spring?

Here is a breakdown of the top 5 teams for the 2024 preseason, players to watch, and other important information for WPIAL Class 3A baseball.

Preseason Top 5

1. Riverside (25-0 last season)

How do you follow up a perfect season? With most of his players back, coach Dan Oliastro of Riverside is hoping for a repeat performance. The Panthers made history last spring by being the first team to win both the WPIAL and PIAA baseball championships with an undefeated record. The team is now ready for more success in 2024 with key players such as junior pitcher Christian Lucarelli (Duke), senior infielder Casey O’Brien (Bloomsburg), and senior infielder Pat Higgins (Delaware Valley), along with many others who were crucial to the team's double-gold.

2. Avonworth (18-7)

Avonworth narrowly beat rival South Park for the Section 2-3A title, but they faced a tough challenge in the district playoffs and lost in the WPIAL final four to Neshannock, 2-1. The team returns eight starters from last year, including senior pitcher and Ithaca commit Luke Zelinko, as well as seniors Brandon Sapolsky and Aiden Tinker who will lead the pitching staff. They also have junior catcher Mason Metz.

3. Mohawk (13-8)

It's tough to compete in Section 1-3A with strong teams like Riverside, Neshannock, Shenango, Ellwood City, and Quaker Valley. Despite winning 13 games, Mohawk finished fourth. This season, they have all nine starters back from a team that lost by one run to East Allegheny in the district quarterfinals. Senior infielder Jay Wrona is a standout player heading to Youngstown State next year. Meanwhile, senior catcher A.J. Verdi is committed to Cal (Pa.), and sophomore pitcher Vinny Pezzulo had a strong freshman season.

4. East Allegheny (14-8)

Three years ago, East Allegheny only had five wins, but last year, they won the Section 3-3A title and reached the WPIAL semifinals, finishing 14-8. The return of eight starters provides hope for another successful year. Senior pitcher and Slippry Rock commit Michael Cahill, along with seniors Joe Connors and Chance Odoski, make up a strong pitching staff. Their catcher is senior Traynor Janosko, who was an all-section player last year. Senior Ryan Rupert was also an all-section center fielder in 2023.

5. Valley (11-11)

Two years ago, Valley won six games and ended up in last place in its section. Last year, the Vikings had a 5-10 record and were just outside the playoff race in Section 3-3A in May. However, they managed to sweep section series against Derry and Deer Lakes and win their last five games to make it to the postseason. After defeating Burrell in the preliminary round, the Vikings were beaten by eventual champion Riverside. This year, Valley has eight returning starters, including senior pitcher and outfielder Tyler Danko, who has committed to Pitt-Johnstown. Also returning are seniors Jacob Staraniec and Wesley Schrock, as well as sophomores Niko Heakins and Dante Taliani.

Players to keep an eye on

Joe Roth, Sr., INF, Ellwood City

Will Nardone, Jr., P, Ellwood City

Jay Wrona, Sr., INF, Mohawk

A.J. Verdi, Sr., C, Mohawk

Vinny Pezzuolo, Soph., P/INF, Mohawk

Dom Cubellis, Jr., OF, Neshannock

Jacob Rynd, Jr., INF, Neshannock

Gavin Fallgren, Sr., C/INF, Quaker Valley

Darren McDade, Sr., C, Riverside

Bo Fornataro, Sr., OF, Riverside

Hunter Garvin, Jr., OF, Riverside

Christian Lucarelli, Jr., P, Riverside

Casey O’Brien, Sr., INF, Riverside

Pat Higgins, Sr., INF, Riverside

Grayson Hooks, Sr., OF, Shenango

Mason Metz, Jr., C, Avonworth

Luke Zelinko, Sr., P, Avonworth

Brandon Sapolsky, Sr., P/INF, Avonworth

Ben Barnes, Sr., OF, Avonworth

Hunter Blackson, Sr., OF, Avonworth

Jake LaPorte, Sr., P, Keystone Oaks

Roman Keaney, Jr., C, Keystone Oaks

Nate Rohe, Soph., P/INF, Keystone Oaks

Dillon Pomaki, Soph., INF, South Allegheny

Josh Jackowski, Jr., OF, South Allegheny

Adam Jackowski, Soph., P, South Allegheny

Jaxson Champ, Sr., C/INF, South Allegheny

Daniel Pepke, Sr., P/INF, South Park

Nelson Horvwalt, Sr., INF/OF, Steel Valley

Chase Burks, Jr., P/C/INF, Sto-Rox

Austen McLafferty, Sr., P/OF, Burrell

Ryan Cochran, Sr., OF, Deer Lakes

Roman Fridley, Sr., OF, Derry

Brady Angus, Sr., INF, Derry

Michael Cahill, Sr., P, East Allegheny

Traynor Janosko, Sr., C/INF, East Allegheny

Ryan Rupert, Sr., OF, East Allegheny

Joe Connors, Sr., P/INF, East Allegheny

Chance Odoski, Sr., P/INF, East Allegheny

Michael Hanz, Jr., P, Freeport

Mathew Corfield, Sr., P/INF, Freeport

Matt Long, Sr., C, Shady Side Academy

Brady Trischler, Jr., INF, Shady Side Academy

Tyler Danko, Sr., OF, Valley

Wesley Schrock, Sr., P/INF/OF, Valley

Jacob Staraniec, Sr., P/INF/OF, Valley

Nikolas Heakins, Soph., P.INF/OF, Valley

Dante Taliani, Soph., P/C/INF, Valley

Rylan Johnson, Sr., INF, Brownsville

Braedon Leatherman, Jr., P, Greensburg Salem

Ryan Keith, Sr., P/OF, McGuffey

Logan Carlisle, Jr., OF, McGuffey

Connor Drzal, Jr., P/INF, Mt. Pleasant

Ty Keffer, Sr., P/INF, Southmoreland

Kadin Keefer, Sr., P/INF, Southmoreland

Alex VanSickle, Jr., INF, Waynesburg Central

Zander Aird, Sr., P/OF, Yough

Diamond notes

• Twenty years ago, it was customary to win WPIAL champions in Class 3A. However, Riverside is expected to win back-to-back 3A titles for the first time since West Allegheny in 2007-2008. Before this, Pine-Richland won three consecutive WPIAL crowns from 2004-2006.

• The defending district and state champion is favored to repeat, but it won’t be easy due to a tough Section 1. The Panthers, along with Mohawk, Neshannock, Shenango, Quaker Valley, Ellwood City, and Beaver Falls will all be vying for success in 2024. Although Riverside comfortably won the section by four games last year, the next three playoff teams (Neshannock, Shenango, and Mohawk) were separated by only one game. The difference between fifth and sixth place was also just one game.

• Despite winning 17 games in 2022, Riverside saw a big jump to 25 games last season, which was the second largest improvement among Class 3A teams from 2022 to 2023. The best turnaround season, however, was experienced by Freeport. They only won five games as a 4A school in 2022, but ended up in second place in Section 3-3A with 15 wins, showing a 10-game improvement. Other 3A teams that made significant progress last season include Greensburg Salem (plus-7 wins), Yough (plus-6), Valley (plus-5), South Park, South Allegheny, and Waynesburg Central (plus-4), as well as Avonworth (plus-3).

• Before the 2023 season, Sto-Rox hadn't won a varsity baseball game since the 2017 season, enduring a 44-game losing streak. However, the losing streak came to an end in the first game of the season when the Vikings beat Springdale 4-3. Unfortunately, Sto-Rox then lost its final nine games of the season, being outscored 144-3. On the other hand, Riverside goes into 2024 with the longest winning streak after a perfect 25-0 season.

• Some WPIAL Class 3A championship anniversaries being celebrated this season: Steel Valley won the WPIAL title five years ago in 2019, West Allegheny was the 3A champion 10 years ago in 2014, Pine-Richland and Neil Walker claimed the 3A title 20 years ago in 2004, Shaler won it all in 3A 25 years ago in 1999, and Burrell secured 3A gold 50 years ago in 1974.

2024 alignment

Section 1: Beaver Falls, Ellwood City, Mohawk, Neshannock, Quaker Valley, Riverside, Shenango

Section 2: Avonworth, Keystone Oaks, South Allegheny, South Park, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox

Section 3: Burrell, Deer Lakes, Derry East Allegheny, Freeport, Shady Side Academy, Valley

Section 4: Brownsville, Greensburg Salem, McGuffey, Mt. Pleasant, Southmoreland, Waynesburg Central, Yough

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