In early March, the snow occupying Erie’s baseball field was a mix of the winter and spring variety. It might have appeared white and fluffy, but it also had a thick, watery, difficult-to-remove quality about it.
The Twitter account run by Tigers players posted a photo of several team members, in an effort to clear the field, rolling the snow into massive, oversized spheres that would make for a solid bottom piece of a snowman.
Pitching coach Greg Moore captioned the photo: This is how Erie Baseball gets ready for the season.
If that’s the case, teams across the nation should organize a snow-removal day.
Throughout preseason practices, most of them in the school gym, the Tigers figured they would be a solid group with Colorado Mesa-bound ace Kyle Leahy in the fold. What has followed, at least to date, is a magical season. The Tigers improved to 15-2 overall after Wednesday’s non-league win against Mountain View and have already clinched the Tri-Valley League crown with a 12-0 mark with two to play.
The Tigers are eyeing a host seed for the Class 4A postseason.
“It’s been a fun year, man,” Erie coach Harold Simmons said. “Being a small school, it seems like we’re always starting young guys. But this year we only start one sophomore and the rest are juniors and seniors, so our maturity has been a huge piece of things.”
Two shutout wins over Windsor on April 18 firmly got the Tigers believing. The teams entered the day tied atop the league at 8-0, and Erie went to Windsor and kept the Wizards off the scoreboard for the entire day. First Leahy threw a 4-0 shutout and Zane Begano followed up with a 1-0 blanking.
“That was huge,” third baseman Luke Conilogue said. “I wasn’t really sure if we were legit because our Holy Family wins were kind of comebacks, but when we beat Windsor, that really said that we were.”
Leahy entered the week 7-0 with an 0.58 earned-run average. Those are swanky, upscale numbers, but not purely unexpected considering he threw a perfect game last season and has signed with the 2014 national runner-up in Division II. But Begano (3-0, 1.24), who followed his Windsor shutout with another against Roosevelt, has added another dimension.
“You know what Kyle is,” Simmons said. “He was going to come out and be the player of the year like he was last year in the Tri-Valley. But to have Zane come out — he has a little over a 1.00 ERA and he’s hitting about .450 — he’s been a huge key to that puzzle. From there, it’s just been fitting all the pieces together.”
Some of those pieces included center fielder B.J. Jensen, who has rebounded from a difficult 2014 season to bat .482 with a team-best 22 runs atop the order; Conilogue (.462, seven doubles, 13 RBIs); and shortstop Josh Crites (.310 and steady defense). Mix in a cast of players who adeptly play their roles and the root of Tigers’ success becomes apparent.
The true X Factor, though, undoubtedly has been the emergence of Begano.
“It’s really just been a matter of staying focused and staying within myself,” Begano said. “A lot of times before, I’d try to overpower myself on the mound. I’ve found a few new pitches with the help of coach Moore and I’ve been really accurate as well this year.”
The Tri-Valley pits teams against each other back-to-back, so teams can’t get away with using the same starting pitcher twice. Having two different looks, Leahy’s straightforward, fastball-based repertoire mixed with Begano’s craftiness, has left teams off balance.
“That’s been a big thing,” Begano said. “Kyle’s dominant-style pitching then a little different look from me.”
The Tigers have qualified for the postseason each of the past two years and have gone to Montrose each time — and lost a first-round heartbreaker each time — but this is the year to up the ante.
“I didn’t really know what we were going to be,” Conilogue said. “I think we kind of surprised ourselves.”
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