After winning a WPIAL Class 5A title in walk-off fashion in 2021 to end the program’s 20-year championship drought, Franklin Regional lost several senior standouts to graduation, and many viewed 2022 as a “rebuilding year” for the Panthers.
Well, for a so-called rebuild, Franklin Regional fared rather well, finishing 11-6 overall and 7-3 in section play — but the Panthers came up just short of winning a section title, then got bounced in the first round of the WPIAL tournament via mercy rule against South Fayette. Expectations weren’t much higher going into this season, with only one returning all-section player from 2021 and nobody who made it onto last year’s team.
Still, while Franklin Regional might not have the same amount of big-name stars with major-college offers as some other top teams in the area, the Panthers have found a way to play a winning brand of baseball while heating up just in time for the stretch run. Riding a four-game winning streak into an all-important matchup on Thursday against section-rival Plum — with first place in Class 5A Section 1 hanging in the balance — Franklin Regional appears more than capable of making some major noise come playoff time this spring.
“I don’t know if anything has really changed. This team has always had a good approach to game day,” said Panthers coach Bobby Saddler, now in his 13th year at the helm. “It’s just execution. And we’ve been executing. Runners in scoring position, two-strike approaches — we’ve been working on those things day in and day out, and the guys have been figuring out ways to plate guys in big innings.”
Locked in a five-team race for only four playoff spots, Franklin Regional (11-3, 6-2) is tied with Plum and Fox Chapel for first place, with Penn-Trafford and Armstrong each one game back. The Panthers picked up a massive two-game sweep against the River Hawks last week thanks to a pair of flawless pitching performances from Blake Bertucci and Max Bernadowski, posting a 4-0 win at home on April 24 and a 6-0 road win the following day.
“They enjoy competing. As a pitcher, that’s one of the first things you want to check off the list,” Saddler said. “They want the ball, and they’re confident in their ability to get outs for us.”
They might not be known as two of the WPIAL’s elite starting pitchers, but Bertucci and Bernadowski have combined to form a trustworthy tandem of right-handers for Franklin Regional this season.
A junior who also spends time at second base and third base, Bertucci is sporting a 2.27 ERA while batting .459 for the Panthers as an ultra-reliable run producer in the middle of the lineup. Also a junior, Bernadowski typically plays shortstop when he’s not pitching, and he’s also in charge of getting things started offensively for Franklin Regional out of the leadoff spot. He holds a .324 average with a home run, seven RBIs and a team-high 21 runs scored to go with his 1.53 ERA on the mound.
“It all depends on the pitcher, but we feel comfortable starting with [Bernadowski]. He’s normally our leadoff guy,” Saddler said. “He’s doing a great job of getting on base and swiping bags for us.”
One player who has burst onto the scene as a blue-chip recruit for the Panthers is freshman infielder Luke Williams, who has already committed to the University of Virginia. Splitting time between third base and shortstop, Williams started his varsity debut strong with a home run during the team’s season-opening trip to Florida, and his bat has remained hot ever since.
Senior designated hitter Anthony Alesi was an all-section pick as a sophomore, and he and senior center fielder Daniel Luko remain two of the team’s most impactful hitters in the lineup while providing plenty of big-game experience. Elsewhere, junior Owen Sinclair and sophomore Chase Lemke are also having big years, rounding out a solid roster from top to bottom without many weaknesses to exploit.
“Top to bottom — a lot of our wins have come from different spots,” Saddler said. “I feel like we’re swinging it well as a team. The one nice thing is, it could be a different guy stepping up in any game.”
Time will tell if Franklin Regional is packing enough firepower to make a second trip to the WPIAL finals in the past three years. But if there’s anything true about the Class 5A tournament, it’s that anything can happen in any given game — and whoever gets hottest at the right time has a good chance of hoisting the trophy at Wild Things Park in early June.
“They understand what the next four games mean for us as a team, but we understand we’ve got to play it game by game,” Saddler said. “We can’t look at any other game outside of the game in front of us tomorrow and execute through the seven innings, and hopefully come out with a win.”
Blackhawk back among top contenders in Class 4A
Long considered one of the WPIAL’s premier programs, Blackhawk took a bit of a step back when it finished 12-8 overall and only 5-7 in section play a year ago.
Don’t look now, but the Cougars are back on the attack and right in the thick of the hunt for the WPIAL Class 4A championship under coach Lou Wolber.
Blackhawk’s season started with a 4-2 loss against West Allegheny on March 21, but the Cougars (11-2, 7-1) have since responded with 11 wins in their past 12 games — none more impressive than a 4-3 win against Montour on April 25, one night after a 3-2 loss to the Spartans to salvage a season split against the defending PIAA champions.
With that in mind, Blackhawk and Montour are now tied atop the Class 4A Section 1 standings, with two section games left apiece to finalize this year’s section champion. But as always, the Cougars have bigger goals in mind — just as they always did under the late, great Bob Amalia.
Leading the way for Blackhawk at the plate are seniors Anthony Malagise, Jarrod Malagise and Zach Oliver. Jarrod Malagise is batting .486 with 5 doubles, a triple, a home run, 7 runs scored and a team-high 18 RBIs, while his twin brother is hitting .476 and also has 5 doubles, 1 triple and 1 home run. Strangely enough, Anthony Malagise actually has only 7 RBIs with 18 runs scored — the exact opposite of his brother’s numbers. Meanwhile, Oliver is batting .472 with 4 doubles, 12 RBIs and 11 runs scored.
Sophomore Dylan Smith has solidified himself as the team’s ace, sporting a 3-0 mark with a 1.73 ERA and 46 strikeouts to only eight walks in 28 1/3 innings. Anthony Malagise is also enjoying a strong season on the bump with a record of 4-1 and a 3.13 ERA to go with 37 strikeouts and 12 walks in 22 1/3 innings pitched.
Colts control destiny in chase for section crown
Going into the week, West Mifflin was riding high as the defending WPIAL Class 4A champion with an unbeaten mark in section play and only one loss on the season overall.
Turns out, Chartiers Valley had something to say about that.
The Colts picked up one of the most impressive road wins by any team this season, traveling to West Mifflin to defeat the Titans, 2-1, on a go-ahead home run by Justin Ferrari in the top of the eighth inning. Joey Vanzin pitched 5 1/3 innings while allowing one run on just two hits and one walk with seven strikeouts, then Brendan Cruz came on and pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win.
The win moved Chartiers Valley (12-3, 9-0) into sole possession of first place in Class 4A Section 3. The teams were supposed to complete the two-game series at the Colts’ home field on Tuesday, but the game was rained out and will be made up in the near future.