Brian Dzurenda was always a big fan of horse racing, and the longtime Serra Catholic baseball coach used to spend a lot of time at the racetrack.
After picking up career win No. 400 in the Eagles’ 8-2 victory Monday at Ligonier Valley, Dzurenda chose a horse-racing analogy to put his achievement into perspective.
“I’m just a jockey on a really good horse,” Dzurenda said. “That’s the way I look at it. I’m very fortunate for the support of the Serra community.”
Truth be told, Dzurenda deserves far more credit for the sustained success of Serra’s program than he would like to admit. Known for his meticulous approach and fine-tuned attention to detail, Dzurenda is a baseball junkie who watches every bit of film he can find on his opponents while charting every single pitch of every game if he can. He spends countless hours thinking about the game, often second-guessing himself and wondering what he could have done better.
There wasn’t much second-guessing to do last season, though. The Eagles amassed a record of 23-0 en route to winning the WPIAL Class 2A title, becoming only the eighth team to win a WPIAL championship without a loss before they fell in a 2-1 heartbreaker to Redbank Valley in the first round of the state playoffs.
Before Dzurenda arrived, Serra had never won much of anything in baseball. Now, there are few schools in the area with the tradition and pedigree to compare with the Eagles. In his 23rd season as coach at his alma mater — not including the canceled 2020 season — Dzurenda has never had a losing season, and the Eagles have a record of 400-103 during his tenure, with four WPIAL titles, four PIAA championship appearances and one state title in 2016.
“The program wasn’t what it is now in the early years. We steadily built what we have now,” Dzurenda said. “I’m more proud of the consistency that we have than the banners and the rings and all that stuff. Consistency is something I strived for. I can remember my first win. It was against East Allegheny High School at [Serra’s] Boston Field.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, if I could just win two out of every three games, that would be pretty good.’”
Turns out, Serra has won about four out of five during Dzurenda’s career, and the Eagles (10-2, 5-1) are on a similar trajectory this year. After a 7-4 win against Ligonier Valley on Tuesday, Serra is halfway toward extending what is believed to be a WPIAL record with a seventh consecutive 20-win season. The Eagles also won 20-plus games four years in a row from 2009-12.
“We play more games than everybody,” Dzurenda said. “You look at the schedules, and some teams are only going to play 13 or 14 games. We’re going to play 20. Every year, we play 20. That’s a big reason why we have so many wins. Every year, we play our max.”
Dzurenda credits his late father for his work ethic and attention to detail, and he said he was the one who inspired him to build the tradition from the ground up. Although his father never got to see Serra hoist the WPIAL championship trophy, Dzurenda said his old man knew it was only a matter of time.
“We hadn’t even won a single playoff game when my dad passed away. He had cancer,” Dzurenda said. “Going to his death bed, he said, ‘Brian, you have no idea how close you guys are.’ Because we had lost like six first-round playoff games in a row, and they were all really close games, and all those teams were going on to win championships. And he was so right.
“When I used to cut the grass, he would get so mad at me if I didn’t weed whack in the corner or under the tree or something. He would tell me, ‘It’s the details. Details are what are going to get you far in life.’ … I want to leave that lasting impression on these kids.”
Serra may not have the nicest field in the area, but the Eagles take pride in properly caring for it and making sure it is ready on game days. Dzurenda himself spends plenty of time resodding, dragging and raking the field, and all of his players do the same — not by force, but by choice.
“Last night after our game, we got back, and I said, ‘Guys, if we want to play tomorrow, we’ve got to get down to the field.’ Half the team was down here spreading Diamond Dry and dragging and raking the field,” Dzurenda said. “You see those seniors get down here and say, ‘We’ve got to play. We’re going to play.’”
Last year’s incredible unbeaten run to the WPIAL title will be tough for the Eagles to top, but they certainly have the firepower to try. Yes, they already have two losses on the season — a 6-4 defeat against Mercyhurst Prep in the second game of a season-opening doubleheader on March 18, and a 2-1 loss against Riverview on April 11 before beating the Raiders the following day, 12-0. But with the unfinished business lingering from last year’s first-round playoff exit and several standout veterans back for revenge, you won’t find many defending WPIAL champions hungrier for more hardware than this Serra team.
“I’ve watched that Redbank Valley game 10 times, and every time I watch it, I’ll just shake my head,” Dzurenda said. “You don’t remember the 400 wins. You remember losses. Those are the ones that live with you.”
Despite missing slugging shortstop Zach Black, who is out for the season with a torn labrum, the Eagles have a lineup filled with elite hitters and one of the top pitchers in the entire WPIAL in senior left-hander Zach Karp. Karp boasts a 5-1 mark with an 0.52 ERA and 45 strikeouts to only three walks in 29 innings pitched, and despite having virtually zero prior varsity batting experience before the season, he’s also hitting .400 while taking Black’s place in the lineup — and he even has the team’s only home run this season.
Sophomore right fielder Tyler Skaggs currently leads the team with a .435 average, followed closely by senior center fielder Michael Schanck at .419. Senior first baseman Joe DeMoss is batting .378, while sophomore third baseman Owen Dombroski is hitting .351, junior second baseman Isaiah Petty is batting .310 and 6-1 freshman Max Black is hitting .300.
All in all, Serra is a deep and balanced team overflowing with invaluable veteran leadership and postseason experience — and of course, a masterful coach pulling the strings.
“[Win No. 400 is] way down on the list [of accomplishments], to be honest,” Dzurenda said. “It’s not about personal accomplishments for any of us on this team. What we’re after is another ring.”
North Hills making noise in Class 5A
The softball team has generated most of the spring sports headlines at North Hills in recent years, but the baseball team seems to be eager to share the spotlight this season.
After posting back-to-back shutout wins, including a 5-0 victory Tuesday at Moon, the Indians (9-1, 5-0) are keeping pace with Shaler at the top of the Class 5A Section 3 standings, setting up a pair of marquee matchups between the teams this coming Monday and Tuesday. Senior C.J. Leuch pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings on Tuesday while allowing three hits and striking out eight, and Scotty Rannallo notched six strikeouts of his own while closing out the win with 2 1/3 spotless frames.
Leuch also tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings in his previous outing, striking out nine and giving up only two hits in a 3-0 win at Mars. The Indians have now won seven games in a row, with their only loss coming in a 16-6 defeat against Pickerington Central (Ohio) at the Ripken Experience March 25 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
California knocks Carmichaels from ranks of unbeaten
Coming off an impressive 15-2 season a year ago, Carmichaels was one of the last remaining undefeated teams left in the WPIAL this spring — until Tuesday, that is.
Section-rival California handed the Mighty Mikes their first loss of the season with a dramatic 5-4 home win, putting the Trojans (6-6, 5-2) right back in the thick of the hunt for the Class 1A Section 1 crown. Avella (8-1, 6-1) now stands at the top of the standings, with Carmichaels (8-1, 4-1) trailing right behind.
Although California came out on top Tuesday, the Mighty Mikes didn’t go down without a fight. The Trojans took a 5-0 lead into the seventh before Carmichaels stormed back with four runs in the top half of the inning, with the Mighty Mikes falling just short of an epic comeback win.
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.