WEIRTON - Playing in the state tournament is the ultimate goal for any prep team.
Weirton Madonna's baseball squad is starting to make a habit of it.
For the third time in four years the Blue Dons are making the trip to Charleston's Appalachian Power Park for the Class A portion of the West Virginia High School State Tournament.
Weirton Madonna’s Dan Pietranton and the Blue Dons will face Charleston Catholic this evening in the state semifinals.
File Photo by Josh Strope
Madonna (23-9) left this morning for Kanawha County where it will face hometown favorite Charleston Catholic in a semifinal slated to begin 30 minutes following the 5 p.m. Class A tilt featuring East Hardy and Valley-Fayette. The two winners will play Saturday afternoon.
''It's always fun when you get to go down to the state tournament,'' said Blue Dons coach Jeff Baire, who guided the program to a state crown two years ago.
Madonna also went to Charleston in 2009, falling in a 9-inning semifinal heartbreaker.
Those two teams featured a lineup with plenty of pop. This season's squad has that, too, but it's been a change in philosophy that has keyed this year's run.
''We depend a lot more on playing 'small ball,' '' Baire explained. ''We're doing the small things, getting guys on and moving them over.
''That's the biggest difference I've seen between the teams. I also think we're deeper as a team than we've been in the past.''
Baire is clearly getting contributions from everyone as the starting lineup includes four seniors, four sophomores and a freshman.
Even though most of those players weren't part of the other state tournament runs, Baire doesn't expect them to be intimidated by the setting.
''That's one of the nice things about being lucky enough to have been down here so many times,'' he said. ''It puts you in a position where you're not awestruck.''
Senior Logan Linder will get the start on the mound today for the Blue Dons. In 13 games the OVAC Class A Player of the Year has a record of 6-4 with a 2.10 earned run average.
Linder's batterymate will be another senior - Chris Duerr.
The infield consists of senior Connor Mogan at first, freshman Kaleb Baire at second, sophomore Ross Comis at third and senior Nick Battista at short.
Sophomores Nick Ossman (left), Luca Fuscardo (center) and Will Bowser (right) comprise the outfield.
Fuscardo, who sports a sparkling 7-1 record and 1.21 ERA, will get the ball Saturday if he Blue Dons advance.
And history is on Madonna's side. For 11 of the past 13 seasons -2001 and 2009 excluded - an OVAC team has made the state finals in West Virginia.
''I think we're playing our best ball of the season,'' said Baire, whose club has won eight straight. ''We've done a good job of playing that 'small ball.' ''
Madonna started the year 9-2 before sustaining a slide midway through the season that saw it lose four of five.
''It's not like we were getting blown out,'' Baire recalled. ''We were up in some of those games until the fifth, sixth inning.''
It wasn't until the second game of a doubleheader against Hebron Lakewood - Baire's alma mater - on April 28 that the tide turned.
''That's when they realized you have to do those small things,'' Baire said ''Baseball is a team sport. Listen, if you don't have nine guys working toward the same goal you're not gonna get wins. That's when they realized we need to pay more attention.
''The one thing I will say is when we made that transition to 'small ball' that upped the enthusiasm of things. It has a tendency to make you pay a little more attention and that has helped our success, especially defensively.''
Execution will be a key against the Irish (29-8), a team Madonna slipped past, 9-8, in April and has played at least once the past five years.
''They're solid,'' Baire said. ''It's the same thing I tell people about (Coach) Jimbo Wodusky's Wheeling Central teams. They will be fundamentally sound, they're pitchers will throw strikes, and they won't beat themselves.''
Charleston Catholic is coming off a victory against Nitro this past Monday in a regular-season contest.
Rocco Wilcox leads the team at the plate with a .475 average and 17 stolen bases. Connor Golden is batting .450 with 38 RBI, while Nelson McKown is hitting .415with 45 RBI.
On the mound for the Irish, Andy Hoyer (10-2, 2.84 ERA) has struck out 66 in 69 innings of work, while Kiefer Hovorka (7-2, 2.18) has 90 Ks.
''There's a lot of familiarity between us,'' Baire said. ''It's just one of those game you enjoy coaching.''