Canon-McMillan captures Section 5 baseball crown
After finishing 4-15 last spring, few figured Canon-McMillan to be a playoff contender in baseball this season. And, after a 1-4 start, which included a 17-0 thumping by Normal West, Illinois in the Cal Ripken Tournament in Myrtle Beach, nobody was talking section title, save the Big Macs, themselves.
They dusted themselves off and won 10 of their next 12 games. Plus, they ended league play with a seven-game winning streak, a spree that included a 15-4 triumph over Bethel Park, which most picked to capture the Section 5-AAAA title. Instead, Canon-Mac claimed the banner with an 8-2 mark after a thrilling, 14-11, victory over neighboring Peters Township.
“The best part about Canon-McMillan kids is they bounce back,” said manager Frank Zebrasky. “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that counts, what matters is how you get back up.”
Even after losing two starters—catcher Ryan Gillespie and center fielder Jake Cadez—for the season, the Big Macs recovered. Buzz Boggio plugged the hole behind the plate while Brandon Kildare filled the gap in the outfield. A junior, Boggio is batting .304 with a .464 on-base percentage. A senior, Kildare ranks No. 2 on the team in hitting with a .434 average and a .571 on-base percentage. He has drilled three doubles and smacked two home runs.
“The injuries, while unfortunate, have allowed others to step up,” said Zebrasky. “And, they have taken care of business.”
The biggest item on the Big Macs’ itinerary proved turning losses into victories. That process took an entire summer and autumn. Many of Canon-Mac’s players played for the area American Legion club, under the direction of Brandon Dittmar. They also experienced success against the likes of Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley and Montour during Fall Ball League play.
“The players had a marvelous off-season,” explained Zebrasky. “One of the things we needed to do was grow up. We had suffered a lot of losses last year, some of them close, but we were never out of a game. We had a chance to battle. We just had to learn to win.
“In the summer, the kids underwent a lot of maturation. They worked diligently. They understand the game of baseball a lot more.”
The Big Macs easily grasped the concept of camaraderie. Team chemistry has played a vital role in CM’s success this spring.
“Collectively, everybody is getting along and that’s been fun,” said Zebrasky. “The players know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Everybody is contributing to the common goal. All have been taking their turns and all have doing their part.”
While seniors Kevin Forrester and John Ross are CM’s 1-2 punch on the mound, the Big Macs have relied on as many as nine players to pitch, including seniors Jeremiah Bartram, Brandon Sterling and Michael Ulam. Forrester is 6-1 while Ross is 3-1. Ross won against BP while Forrester earned the victory against PT.
Offensively, the team packs a wallop with Frank Fortunato in the lead-off spot and Forrester in the second slot followed.
A senior third baseman, Fortunato owns a .491 average with a .647 on-base percentage. He leads the team with 28 hits, eight doubles, one triple, 19 RBI, 11 walks and nine stolen bases. He is tied with Kildare with 20 runs scored.
A senior, Forrester bats .346 with a .424 on-base percentage. He has driven in 12 and scored 16 runs.
While Fortunato and Forrester provide consistency in the line-up, Zebrasky can never predict from where his offensive spark will arise.
For example, Jared Beach proved the big gun against BP when he smashed a three-run homer. Justin Davey pounded out three hits against PT. He also had a 5-for-5 game with six RBI.
Beach has six doubles to go along with three round-trippers and 15 RBI. The sophomore right fielder is batting .348 with a .491 on-base percentage. Davey has 21 RBI, 14 runs scored, five doubles and a .500 on-base percentage. The senior first baseman is batting .400.
“It’s been fun,” said Zebrasky. “It’s been somebody different every game. We have people getting it done. Guys at the bottom of the line-up are getting the job done, too.”
Even the young players have gotten into the action. Freshman Matt Mish has helped out the pitching staff while freshman Connor Coleman starts in left field when Forrester is pitching. Coleman is batting .316. Juniors Zach Pollack and Teagan Piechnick provide solid bats as well as a potent double-play combination at second and shortstop respectively. Sophomore Luke Blanock can pitch, play short and share the designated hitter duties with Eric Birshok, a senior who can also play at second base. Blanock is batting .421 with a .500 on-base percentage.
Seniors Jake Trainor, Ryan Ulam and Travis Sumner provide strength on defense as do freshman Tanner Piechnick along with juniors Trevor Schreckengost and Andrew Bayne.
Defense has been a staple during CM’s streak says Zebrasky. “When we do field well, we extent our opportunities to win the game,” he explained. “Good defense helps our pitching staff and enables us to be involved in more games. Having quality defense is a sign of a good team.”
Coming out of Section 5 as the champion affords the Big Macs more than a good seed in the WPIAL tournament. The showing prepares them for the pressures that await as CM attempts to challenge for the Quad-A title and to make a run at its first PIAA title since winning the banner in 2008.
“When you come out of this section and make the playoffs, you opportunities to advance are greatly increased because of the competition you have faced. Day in and day out, you faced some of the best competition. Just getting into the playoffs out of this section, gives you a chance,” Zebrasky said.
The WPIAL will announce the playoff pairings on Friday, May 12. The championship contests in all four divisions will be played May 28-29 at the Consol Energy Field in Washington.
Until the post-season commences, the Big Macs will relish their achievement.
“I am so proud of this team and my whole coaching staff. They have done a tremendous job,” Zebrasky said. “The players on this team have represented themselves, their school and community well. What they have done speaks volumes.”