By: Jerin Steele , Monday, March 11, 2019, TRIB-LIVE
Dressed in parkas and tassel caps, the Fox Chapel baseball team braved the cold last Thursday, getting in a few minutes of infield work on the turf before heading inside to the batting cages.
At each spot on the diamond were several players waiting for an opportunity to field a grounder, which gave a snapshot into the team’s depth this season.
The Foxes return 10 players who saw significant playing time last year and have a dozen seniors. They’re banking on that experience leading them to a section title for the first time in four years.
“I think our chances are better than in recent years,” Fox Chapel senior shortstop T.J. Johnston said. “We have a good lineup, great guys and really just a solid team all around.”
The Foxes finished 9-11 last year and 6-6 in Section 1-5A. They lost to Laurel Highlands, 6-5, in the first round of the playoffs.
Johnston, a Penn State Behrend recruit, is one of three returners — Mitch Miles and Jonathan Simon are the others — who hit over .300 last season. Matt Jerpe, Alex McRandal and Ryan Wagner are returners who had a batting average above .275.
“It’s good knowing that pretty much everyone that played last year is coming back,” Simon said. “Our lineup one through nine can hit pretty well, and I feel like our fielding is going to be very solid. We’re also confident in our pitching. With all of those factors put together, I think it can lead to success.”
The aforementioned six players give second-year Foxes coach Jim Hastings some length to his lineup, and he said he has more options at his disposal to fit in.
“I think we’ll be pretty deep in our lineup,” Hastings said. “There’s good competition, too. If someone’s not hitting, we have the opportunity to have someone else that’s just as good or close to it try to do it. My job is to try to find the right mix and see who’s hot because high school is such a short season. Four games is a lot, so you have to know when to make the change or not.”
The Foxes lost ace pitcher Alex Miles to graduation, but Simon, who was the Foxes’ No. 2 pitcher last year, is slated to front the rotation. Simon, a lefty, struck out 22 batters in 24 1/3 innings last season. Noah Marks, Matt Jerpe and Ryan Wagner will likely see significant innings this season.
Fox Chapel had some trouble in the field last year, surrendering 24 unearned runs, but Hastings said that was partly because of some players getting their first varsity action and moving guys around defensively.
“In baseball, if you can throw strikes and not make errors, you’re going to have a good chance to win and we know that,” Hastings said. “One of the things we’ve talked about as a coaching staff is trying to get guys in positions where they’re more successful. It’s hard in high school to do that when you have (position) guys pitching.”
Fox Chapel leaves a difficult section, which featured three of the four semifinalists in Class 5A last year in reigning champion North Hills, Mars and Hampton, for a new Section 1 with Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Gateway, Kiski Area, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills.
“Our goal is to win the section and to get there you’re looking at least nine or 10 victories, maybe more,” Hastings said. “It’s different. When it comes down to it, every section has talent. We’re looking forward to playing some different teams.”