Year in and year out, it seems like North Allegheny has to find a way to replace a star player or three from the previous year’s team — and like clockwork, the Tigers just keep on ticking.

That’s a testament to the culture of success coach Andrew Heck and his staff have cultivated since he took over at just 27 years old in 2016. Not counting the 2020 season that was wiped away by the COVID-19 pandemic, Heck has guided North Allegheny to four WPIAL championship appearances in his first six seasons at the helm, winning a WPIAL Class 6A title in 2021 before finishing as WPIAL runners-up a year ago.

Following the 2022 season, stellar shortstop Cole Young graduated and entered the MLB Draft, where he was selected No. 21 overall by the Seattle Mariners. In his absence, blue-chip recruit Spencer Barnett slid over from second base to shortstop and filled in seamlessly in Young’s place, but he has since moved on to play at West Virginia.

With only four returning starters, this year’s group might not boast as much overall star power as the Tigers of recent years, but North Allegheny is still stockpiled with talent and firing on all cylinders while securing a firm hold on the top spot in Class 6A Section 1 during its undefeated start.

“The goal is to be playing your best baseball at the end of the season and finding ways to progress throughout the year while continuing to get better,” Heck said. “That’s the No. 1 goal. I don’t want to be playing our best right now. I want to be playing well, but I want us to be playing our best baseball at the end of the year.”

North Allegheny coach Andrew Heck has guided the Tigers to four WPIAL championship appearances in six seasons at the helm. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The Tigers (8-0, 5-0) feature a pair of West Virginia recruits on their pitching staff who will soon be joining Barnett in Morgantown in senior left-hander J.D. Costanzo and junior right-hander Nico Varlotta. Costanzo emerged as the team’s No. 1 pitcher as a junior, when he compiled a 4-1 record with a 1.84 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings, but he sustained an injury in a 5-4 win against Norwin on March 28 and hasn’t pitched since.

Heck remains optimistic about Costanzo’s chances for a comeback, but at the same time, he isn’t holding his breath. After all, the “next man up” mentality has served as the foundation of North Allegheny’s success under Heck for nearly a decade, and nobody embraces it more than the Tigers.

“That’s our goal every year,” Heck said. “I never like to say, ‘Rebuild.’ I always say, ‘Reload.’”

With Costanzo on the mend, Navy recruit David Posey has ascended into the role of the de facto ace after serving as a “1B” to Costanzo’s “1A” in 2023. Also a reliable hitter with plenty of pop at the plate, Posey starts at first base when he’s not on the mound, and he’s typically the senior leader who most of the players gravitate toward in the dugout when they need a spark.

Through the first seven games in 2024, Posey is batting .409 with nine RBIs, and he is 2-0 on the mound with 13 strikeouts in 11 innings.

“Yes, J.D. was the most dangerous, and people did not want to face him, but Posey logged some really big-time innings for us and helped us get to where we got to last year,” Heck said. “He won big games for us.”

Alongside Posey, senior Greg Schmidt has taken control of the No. 2 position in the rotation, posting a 1.68 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 8⅓ innings pitched. Elsewhere, senior Charlie Mau is a Penn State recruit who has yet to allow an earned run while fanning 10 batters in seven innings, and junior left-hander Jackson Walsh sports a 1.17 ERA with six strikeouts in six innings pitched.

And as if that weren’t enough, Varlotta will soon be making his return from injury to bolster an already loaded pitching staff.

“[The injuries] have given us an opportunity to take a look at some of the younger arms and get them into the rotation,” Heck said. “Obviously, we try to rely on our seniors, but every time you run into those stumbling blocks, it’s great to be able to work those guys in and really see what they can do.”

North Allegheny junior Nico Varlotta is one of several Power Five recruits on the Tigers’ loaded pitching staff. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Other than Posey, seniors Matthew Parreaguirre and Owen Schall have been two of North Allegheny’s most productive hitters so far this spring. Parreaguirre went 2 for 4 with a double and five RBIs in a 14-4 win at Allderdice on Monday, boosting his season average to .450 with seven RBIs through seven games. An ultra-consistent third baseman, Schall is batting .316 while tying with Posey for the team lead with nine RBIs.

“I don’t think I can say that there’s one bat that makes this team go,” Heck said. “I don’t think that we have a bat that is a Spencer Barnett or a Cole Young bat. I know we don’t. But I think that we are doing a lot of good things offensively and putting good at-bats together from No. 1 through No. 9.”

Although the Tigers have been far from flawless during their undefeated start — especially when it comes to handing out free passes on the mound — they just keep on finding ways to win. And with a stable of newcomers eager to carry on the program’s winning tradition alongside a handful of established veterans, it wouldn’t surprise anybody to see North Allegheny making yet another trip to Wild Things Park next month.

Not that Heck will allow them to even think about that just yet.

“Winning in the WPIAL, I think it’s a heck of a lot harder than some of the other districts across the area,” Heck said. “You want to win a state championship, but at the end of the day, those WPIAL championships are pretty sweet, too.”

Mt. Lebanon’s Shields ready to be unleashed

Coming off his unforgettable no-hitter with nine strikeouts in a 4-0 win against North Allegheny in last year’s WPIAL Class 6A championship game, fans had to wait a little bit longer than they hoped for the 2024 debut of Mt. Lebanon phenom David Shields.

After battling mononucleosis for the first month of the season, the prized Miami recruit finally took the rubber for the first time in a 1-0 win against Canon-McMillan on April 5, picking up right where he left off last year with seven strikeouts in three no-hit innings. A rainout then forced Shields to miss his next scheduled start against Central Catholic last week, but Blue Devils coach Patt McCloskey said his ace will make his second start at Norwin at 4 p.m. Thursday, 13 days after his season debut — and this time, Shields is ready for a full workload.

Last year, the southpaw posted a record of 5-1 with an 0.94 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and a school-record 106 strikeouts to just 16 walks in 67 innings pitched. Widely considered a future early-round MLB draft pick, Shields is also the starting center fielder for Mt. Lebanon (9-3, 6-2), and he batted .338 as a sophomore. He has reclassified to graduate at the end of this year, making him eligible for the 2024 MLB Draft.

Pictured during his no-hitter against North Allegheny in the 2023 WPIAL Class 6A championship game, Mt. Lebanon’s David Shields is nearing a return to full strength after battling mononucleosis earlier this season. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

WPIAL batting champ Hughes back in top form

In terms of the most acclaimed two-way players in the area, Springdale’s John Hughes doesn’t spring to mind as quickly as some of the other big names at bigger schools, but there’s no denying it any longer — the Dynamos’ standout senior is as dynamic as they come.

After leading the WPIAL by a wide margin with a .649 batting average during the 2023 regular season, Hughes is well on his way to another huge season for Springdale (2-1, 2-0). Through the team’s first three games, Hughes is batting .750 with a double, a triple, a home run, 4 RBIs and 5 runs scored, boasting an on-base percentage of .800 with a 1.500 slugging percentage and 2.300 OPS.

And in case you haven’t heard, Hughes is also a strikeout machine on the mound, racking up a whopping 25 K’s in only 11 innings so far this year after tying for second in the WPIAL with 78 strikeouts in 2023. He has yet to allow an earned run and owns a WHIP of 0.91 after striking out 11 batters in four innings of work in a 6-2 win against Rochester on Monday.

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at