By PETER DiGIOVANNI
Conestoga and Devon Prep take their final steps today in hopes of bringing home a title in the PIAA baseball championship games.
The Pioneers (20-5) will take on La Salle College High School in the Class AAAA championship at 1 p.m. at Penn State's Lubrano Field, while the Tide are set to take on undfeated District 9 champion Elk County Catholic in Class A at 3:30 p.m.
La Salle, the District 12 champs comes into the finals seeking its second championship in three years, Conestoga coach John Vogan knows how tough of a task it will be to deny them.
"La Salle is an excellent team with very good athletes,' Vogan said. "They make the routine plays and they make the great plays. They don't just hit the ball, they hit it hard and they play good defense. This will be a big challenge for us. We are going to try and go deep in the count and get their pitcher's pitch count up and hopefully get him out of the game.'
The pitcher Vogan was referring to is St. Joseph's-bound Dom Cuoci, who threw a two-hitter with eight strikeouts in the Explorers' 3-0 win over Spring-Ford in the semifinal. Cuoci went 7-1 in the regular season and has upped his game for the playoff run. He has a fastball in the mid-80s and he throws his curveball for strikes. The unknown is how he will react on three days rest after throwing 90 pitches on Monday.La Salle has an All-Catholic League catcher in Nick Dermo, who hit .431 with 28 RBIs in the regular season, and Jimmy Herron, who is hitting .381. Brad Schendier and Ryan Coonahan are other key members for the Explorers.Brandon Little will head to the mound for Vogan.
"We will go with Brendon Little, who has a very hard fastball and he can throw his curveball for strikes,' he said. "When he gets his curve over the plate he is very tough. He becomes very difficult to hit. Against Red Land he was perfect for four innings and then he walked a few people in the fifth, but he was still right a round the plate.'
Conestoga has championship pedigree on its side also. They won a state title in 2011 and three key members -- Tom Richter, Stve Born and Andrew Born -- were members of that squad. Richter is hitting .505 in the postseason. Vogan mentioned a couple of other players who have been hot for them.
"Austin Shirley has been playing very good baseball in the outfield for us,' Vogan said. "He has saved his best season for his senior year. He leads by example and he has upped his game this season from an already high level. He is one of the reasons we are going to State College. He has done well since going into the leadoff spot. And Alec Gagne is another player that has come through for us. He has been playing a great left field and he has gotten some timely hits. He waited for his chance and we told him that in a 20-game season, you will get your chance and he has taken advantage of it. He got a big hit for us the other day against Seneca Valley in the seventh inning when we were trying to get an insurance run. "We have been finding ways to win games in the playoffs so far, and hopefully, we can find a way Friday to beat a very good La Salle team.'
Pick: The Pioneers had six players that hit over .400 in the regular season and are playing very good defense right now. LaSalle is the best team Conestoga will face this season, but the pick is Conestoga, 5-2.
Devon Prep has 26-0 Elk County Catholic standing between them and a state crown. Both teams posted shutouts in their semifinal games. Elk County downed Bishop McCourt, 1-0, while the Tide blanked Schulykill Haven, 4-0.Devon Prep coach Mark Aquilante will go with junior Pat Rohr, who was 7-2, with an 1.24 ERA in the regular season and is 3-0 in the postseason. Rohr throws a fastball in the low-80s, which is made even better when he gets strikes with his curveball. He spots his fastball and keeps the ball down and will throw a change up in certain situations."We feel very good going with Pat on Friday,' Aquilante said. "He has been great for us this season and if need be, we will have Sean Phelan available to close the game out like he did in the semifinals. The good thing about Pat is that he can throw any pitch on any count. We are as prepared as we can be for this game."Elk County is very tough. You have a lot of mojo when you go 26-0. They have a Division 1 pitcher (Brandon Schliwinn), but we have faced these kinds of pitchers this year. We are playing great defense right now and I have to credit my assistant Pat Kane for that. Pat came over from Springfield (Delco) and we have some guys who have been learning new positions and Pat has done a fantastic job with their footwork and getting them to be comfortable in the infield. He has done a great job."We only have three seniors and these kids have been in six state games in two years so they are used to pressure. This will be an enormous challenge for us because anytime you play an undefeated team you have to really pick up your game.'
Pick: Rohr has been very good for Devon and with Phelan and C.J. Kohlbrenner ready if needed, it looks like the Tide can bring home a Class A title, 4-1.
NOTES: Devon Prep has reached the Class A final without having their top two pitchers, Zach Schellenger and Sean Phelan available for five weeks due to injury. Phelan returned last week. ... Conestoga did not win the District 1 title in 2011 either. That year, the Pioneers finished second in the district. This season, ' Stoga finished as the third seed. ... Devon Prep sophomore Tony Gallo hit .432 for the season and has stayed hot in the playoffs. Gallo is a future Division 1 college player. ... LaSalle won the PIAA title in 2012 and barely qualified for the postseason, before winning the District 12 title. LaSalle basketball also knocked out Conestoga in the first round of states in March.