Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
John Sansone and Alex Strittmatter were a nightmare duo for opposing baseball teams.
On the mound. In the batter’s box. In the field. Teams had to contend with the Lancers’ dynamic senior duo.
And, often the opposition failed to come away with success.
Sansone, a shortstop, batted .597 (40 for 57) with 40 RBIs, 34 runs scored, 12 doubles, six triples and seven home runs. All of which were tops in the county. He added 18 stolen bases as well.
A Florida State University recruit, Sansone was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 39th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. He was tabbed with the 1,204th overall pick. Sansone elected to continue his baseball career at Florida State and major in sports management.
“When you look at everything he did this year, it was totally amazing,” Neshannock Mike Kirkwood said. “The amount of pressure he had on himself from pro scouts and things was incredible.
“To be able to mentally handle all the things really says a lot. That’s an awful lot of pressure on an 18-year-old kid and he handled it great.”
Strittmatter, a right-handed pitcher/first baseman, baffled opposing hitters. He was 9-0 on the hill in 55 innings with a 0.87 earned run average. Strittmatter struck out 74 batters and walked just 12.
Those numbers were all tops on the team. The walks were the lowest among the team’s starters. Strittmatter’s ERA was tops in the county.
“He was decent as a 10th-grader. But his velocity has grown,” Kirkwood said. “His location and how to pitch people improved. He really grew in that aspect of pitching.
“Alex is not a thrower, but a pitcher now.”
The tandem was voted as Lawrence County’s baseball co-MVPs for the second straight season, as voted on by the New Castle News sports department. The two were instrumental in leading the Lancers to a 12-0 mark in WPIAL Section 3-A and 22-3 overall. Neshannock captured its second-straight district title as well.
“It’s very special,” Sansone said of the two consecutive district titles. “I’m very proud to say I played for Neshannock.”
Said Strittmatter, “Just to be in the championship game is a pretty special feeling. You’ve accomplished a lot being in that game.”
Sansone just missed out on batting over .600 two years in a row. Last year, Sansone batted .661. He was 0 for 5 with a walk this year in the PIAA playoffs, which dropped his average just below .600.
“I think I did better this year even though my average wasn’t as good,” Sansone said. “I had more power numbers and I was more of a polished player.”
Strittmatter limited opposing hitters to just a .202 average. But he never faced Sansone, except in practice.
“He’s a unique player. Unbelievable,” Strittmatter said of Sansone. “What he’s been able to accomplish with his average is pretty sensational.
“I can’t even imagine batting over .600. Props to him. He works his tail off. It’s a lot easier knowing he’s on my side. Having him behind me turning the double play is a big boost.”
Strittmatter more than helps himself at the plate. He hit .431, which was second on the team, with two home runs, 21 RBIs and 23 runs scored. And when he’s not on the hill, he’s a star at first base as well.
“His batting is amazing,” Sansone said of Strittmatter. “He’s always putting the ball in play, no matter what.
“He did amazing on the mound, too. He’s awesome in the field. Every time he’s over at first, I’m not worried a bit about my throws over there.”
John Conglose, Matt Cioffi, Ernie Burkes and Marcus Giangiuli earned all-star status as well from Neshannock.
Conglose, a junior second baseman, batted .406 with a home run, 20 RBIs, 23 runs scored and a team-high 21 steals.
“Last year, he was streaky. But he put it all together this year,” Kirkwood said. “He was consistently giving us production.
“It’s really nice to see him develop as a hitter. He’s only going to get better.”
Conglose was the other half of the Lancers’ double play combination in the middle of the infield.
“I felt, defensively, they were exceptional,” Kirkwood said of Sansone and Conglose. “They are two great athletes in the middle and they cover a lot of ground.
“John has great speed and gets to a lot of balls. He’s a heads-up player.”
Cioffi, a junior designated hitter, hit .397 with 15 RBIs and 34 runs scored.
“The last couple of years, he was our DH, and that’s basically all he did,” Kirkwood said. “He’s a tough kid to strike out; he’s always putting it in play.
“Matt can hit with power. He’s a pure hitter.”
Cioffi served as the team’s backup catcher. He got the call behind the plate for the first-round state playoff game against Bishop Guilfoyle because starting catcher Ryan Giangiuli sustained a broken nose earlier in the week.
“He can catch, and I thought he did a great job behind the plate in the state playoff game,” Kirkwood said.
FINDING A SPOT
Burkes, a sophomore third baseman, compiled a .403 batting average with 18 runs scored, 17 RBIs and 14 steals.
“He can hit the gaps,” Kirkwood said. “He’s a threat to go for two at any time and he can steal second base if he doesn’t go for two.
“We started him off as the leadoff guy because he’s so fast. We moved Burkes down to see more fastballs and he accepted the role, no problem. And he flourished there, too.”
Last year, Burkes was primarily a courtesy runner.
“He won the position of third base outright and he embraced it,” Kirkwood said. “He’s one of the quickest kids I’ve coached.
“He will have a shot to move to shortstop next year, which is his natural position. He has quick hands, quick feet and he’s extremely fast.”
Marcus Giangiuli, a sophomore centerfielder, hit .328 with 22 runs scored and 10 RBIs.
“There was one part of the year he was 10 for 10. He did a superb job,” Kirkwood said. “When they’re young, they want to pull it to hit it hard. We preach to use the whole field and he’s bought into that a great deal.”
Marcus Giangiuli made a big impact in the field. He got to fly balls in the gap and his speed and arm prevented opposing runners from taking an extra base.
“We thought he’d be a good defensive outfielder and he was; he filled the role well,” Kirkwood said. “He gets a great jump on balls. We’re pleased with his development.
“He has a strong arm. He could have been one of our pitchers this year. We think he can possibly fit into the rotation somewhere next year.”
Neshannock loses eight players from its official roster to graduation and Kirkwood noted the difficulty in replacing them.
“That’s going to be huge,” he said. “Sansone is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Strittmatter, you may never see another pitcher like him for a long time.
“Ryan Giangiuli behind the plate, he’s as good as anyone. He was our No. 4 batter. Those three are the big three of our losses, but all of our guys are stand-up guys. They’re all in for the team and they all bought in.”
The Lancers will have another tall order to conquer as they climb to Class AA, and will compete in Section 5 after the sections realigned. WPIAL champion Ellwood City Lincoln, along with PIAA champion Riverside, are members of Section 5. Beaver, which qualified for the Class AAA playoffs but lost in the first round, is dropping down and will compete in Section 5.
“That’s an amazing, amazing section,” Kirkwood said. “Anyone that gets into the playoffs will have a real shot of winning a WPIAL or state title. You saw that this year with Ellwood and Riverside. That’s how good that section is.”
(In the print edition: If you didn’t pick up a copy of Saturday’s keepsake page featuring trading cards of all the all-stars, there’s still time. Stop into The News business office or call Marty at (724) 654-6651, extension 610.)