When West Mifflin captured its first WPIAL baseball title in school history last May, it was only fitting that the Titans did so in style.
After enduring a 21-year drought without winning a WPIAL title in any sport, West Mifflin brought home the WPIAL Class 4A championship with a 5-4 win in a 12-inning thriller against Montour at Wild Things Park — tied for the longest championship game since the venue began hosting WPIAL title games in 2004. The Titans then advanced all the way to the PIAA semifinals before dropping a 2-1 nail-biter in a WPIAL championship rematch against Montour, which then went on to win the state title. West Mifflin still had plenty to be proud of, but with the historic 20-win season in the rearview mirror and seven starters graduating in 2022, few would have expected the Titans to make a repeat run at defending its Class 4A crown.
My, how quickly things have changed.
Through 15 games into the 2023 season, West Mifflin (14-1, 8-0) has solidified its status as the WPIAL’s front-runner in Class 4A — and don’t forget, the Titans still have unfinished business in the state tournament as well. Of course, they still have an all-important two-game series ahead against Chartiers Valley on Monday and Tuesday to determine the section title. But for now, West Mifflin is exceeding all expectations in its bid to win back-to-back WPIAL titles with an almost entirely new cast of characters.
“What I think last year did for us — it put a taste in their mouth. It showed that there are high expectations that we have for this program at West Mifflin,” Titans coach Jeff Kuzma said. “The expectations that last year left on this year’s team are special.”
How is West Mifflin doing it? Well, it all starts with the Titans’ emphasis on small ball and defense, with tons of practice time spent focusing on fine-tuning the little things like bunting, shifting, baserunning, etc. That’s how they managed to bring home a WPIAL title last year — and if it isn’t broke, why fix it?
Although seven starters graduated from last year’s team, West Mifflin still has a handful of players with varsity experience — and it helps that all four of them are having tremendous seasons. Seniors Bert Kovalsky and Pierson Buck provide much-needed veteran leadership to help stabilize one of the youngest teams in Class 4A, and juniors Zane Griffaton and Corey Kuszaj are both emerging as two of the area’s top talents in the 2024 class.
“All of these kids, we all played together growing up,” Griffaton said. “I just think our team has a really good chemistry going on. All the way from the seniors all the way down to the freshmen.”
Known for his hustle, athleticism and versatility whether at the plate, in the field, on the basepaths or on the mound, Griffaton is an electric leadoff hitter batting .386 with 3 doubles, a triple, 2 home runs, 12 RBIs, 6 stolen bases and a team-leading 23 runs scored. He put his wheels on full display in the seventh inning of a 3-2 win April 20 at Upper St. Clair, stealing second base before advancing to third and coming home to score the go-ahead run on an errant throw.
“Being able to take somebody who I think is one of the best outfielders in the WPIAL and bounce him over to first base to give us that anchor we need over at first — you see some plays when he plays the outfield that wow you,” Kuzma said. “And all that did was turn into some of the plays that recently he was able to make at Upper St. Clair. Here at T.J., he caught a long foul ball in right field [Monday] in foul territory. That just goes to show you his ability defensively and his athleticism will show anywhere on the field.”
Griffaton said he prefers playing the field to pitching, but he’s had plenty of success on the mound this year as well, with a 2.71 ERA and 18 strikeouts to five walks in 10 1/3 innings pitched. After tossing five solid innings in last year’s WPIAL title game, Buck is enjoying another solid season as the team’s No. 1 starter, owning a 3-0 record and 3.12 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, freshman Caden Wills is turning heads with a 3-0 record and 1.35 ERA with 16 strikeouts to four walks in 20 2/3 innings — all while batting cleanup and hitting .262 with a triple, 12 RBIs and 12 runs scored.
“He’s got a bright future,” Kuzma said about Wills. “To come in as a freshman and play varsity baseball is not easy. We knew we were young and we were going to have to rely on Caden. We didn’t expect the pitching to be as solid as it has been, but what a surprise that has been.”
After spending most of his career at third base, Kovalsky has taken over at shortstop as a senior and is batting .435 with a pair of doubles, 11 RBIs and 19 runs scored, and he embodies the small-ball approach constantly preached by Kuzma and assistant coach Tom Simcho. Kuszaj also provides a rock-solid presence behind the plate and has become arguably the Titans’ most dangerous hitter, batting .500 out of the No. 3 hole with a double, a triple, a home run and a team-high 20 RBIs.
“I think everybody knows [we have a target on our backs] and they want to take us down,” Kuszaj said. “A lot of people didn’t have any faith in us last year, and I think we achieved a lot. I like being the underdogs and not being a team people think can do well. … I’m hoping we can come through and make history again.”
Speaking of Simcho, Kuzma emphasized how integral his longtime assistant has been to the steady rise of West Mifflin’s program during his first tenure from 2001-13 as well as his current regime. Kuzma’s teams won 121 games during his first 13-year stint at his alma mater, and Simcho was by his side for almost all of them. So when he got the call from athletic director Scott Stephenson to return as head coach in 2020, he knew exactly who he would be bringing along with him.
“I believe we both grew with our time off, because when I was done, Tom was done,” Kuzma said. “He coached some summer ball, and I did, too. But it gave us a chance to sit back and kind of analyze things that we’ve done. I don’t think we changed, but we did grow and evolve as coaches.
“If you look back, there haven’t been too many bad seasons under the Kuzma-Simcho regime. We always find a way to at least be in the mix.”
So far, so good for Kuzma and Simcho: Act Two — just check their record of 46-10 in two-plus seasons since returning for proof. Oh, and that glimmering WPIAL championship memento sitting in the Titans’ once-lonely trophy case? It might be receiving some company soon.
“If you give me a cut, I guarantee you it’s going to come out a little bit of blue and gold,” Kuzma said. “I love this area, I truly do. I’ve been teaching now for 25 years in West Mifflin. Aside from my own family, there’s not much more that I love than coaching West Mifflin baseball.
“To be able to come back after all the adversity. … To get to the point we went to last year, and then to turn around and do what we’ve done this year — special. I feel a lot of pride, and I know a lot of people in my community felt that. That makes me probably more happy than anything, being a hometown boy.”