NEW CASTLE —
It was a quick slip of the tongue.
Alex Welker was rushing a bit before practice and made an honest mistake. He was thinking about two words, and one came out: snikes. A new brand of shoe and a pretty clever nickname.
“One day one of my coaches asked me why I didn’t have my spikes,” recalled Welker, a pitcher for the Neshannock High baseball team. “He said, ‘Did you get those new Nikes?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my snikes are in my bag.’ I got the words mixed up. And that’s all they call me now.”
With how he’s thrown the ball this season, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence his newfound moniker rhymes with strikes.
The junior right-hander has become one of the Lancers’ top pitchers. He holds a 6-1 record and a 2.09 ERA. He’s given up 23 hits in 371/3 innings and opponents are hitting .177 against him. Welker really has flourished in the playoffs. He didn’t allow a hit over four innings and struck out five in the Lancers’ 9-5 WPIAL Class A quarterfinal win over Chartiers Houston. He followed that up by yielding one run on three hits in a 6-1 victory over Our Lady of Sacred Heart in the semifinals last Monday. He struck out seven and walked two in his first complete game of the season.
The performance earned him Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
It took a year-long battle to reach this point. The Lancers (20-2), who face California (19-0) in the WPIAL Class AA championship game at 5:30 p.m. today, came into the season without a No. 2 starter. Senior Alex Strittmatter has been the staff ace for the past two seasons, but Neshannock coach Mike Kirkwood said at the beginning of the year that the Lancers would suffer an early exit in the playoffs if they didn’t develop a second option. Oh, how right he was.
Strittmatter was ejected during Neshannock’s quarterfinal game for barreling into the catcher, and in accordance with PIAA and WPIAL rules, he had to sit out the team’s semifinal game as well. That meant all the pressure fell on Welker, who had been in a close race with Mike Ross for the No. 2 role all season.
“After my first playoff game when I threw those four or five innings, (Kirkwood) made a speech at the end and let me know I was the guy,” Welker said. “It was actually pretty cool. Everyone was sitting around after the game and he announced it. He said I’m not the number-two pitcher, I’m the 1-A pitcher. It was kind of funny, but yeah, I was glad he said it. Maybe next year, I’ll be the 1.”
Welker, who starts in right field when he’s not pitching, split time during the regular season, working on pitching some days and on outfield drills and hitting on others. He channeled his focus to pitching in the final weeks leading up to the playoffs, and the results show it.
Kirkwood had enough confidence to start him in the quarterfinals, a decision he made to give Strittmatter a rest. If there was any lingering questions, Welker answered them by pitching four innings of no-hit baseball.
“When that happened (Strittmatter was tossed) in the top of the first, now it’s like, ‘OK, it’s your ball, it’s your game. Get it done,’ ” Kirkwood said. “And he really stepped it up and did a nice job. Going into that second game, I felt really comfortable with him based on what I’d seen and how he handled the pressure. He just did a phenomenal job.”
Welker’s progress this year occurred mostly because of his curveball and change-up, Kirkwood said. Welker throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 80s, and his command is solid, but adding those secondary pitches brought another dimension to his game and has kept hitters off balance.
“He was more of thrower than a pitcher,” Kirkwood said. “He’s developed into a pitcher now. Before, he was able to throw it hard, but you kinda didn’t know where it was going. Now, he’s understanding how to locate pitches and why you’re locating them instead of just throwing them.”
“We have a lot of intrasquad games against each other, and if you make a mistake against some of our kids, you’re going to get hit,” Kirkwood said. “And he’s done well in a lot of our intrasquad games, which I think gave him some confidence.”
There were other signs of improvement as well, and they also came from the same teammates who razzed him about his nickname.
“I always looked up to Alex (Strittmatter),” Welker said. “He always got to throw in the playoffs and I actually wanted to do it. And he was there along the way, the whole time helping me out. ... He really kept me calm. I would look over in the dugout to see what to do, and he would help me. I’m glad he was there.”
THE ALEX WELKER FILE
POSITION: Pitcher, right fielder
KNOWN FOR: Welker quickly has become one of the Lancers’ top pitchers in his first full season as a starter. He won both of Neshannock’s postseason games and sports a 6-1 record, 2.09 ERA and has 42 strikeouts in 371/3 innings.
PARENTS: Jim and Susan Welker.
FAVORITE PRO TEAM AND WHY: Pittsburgh Pirates. “I watch them and I enjoy going to games. They haven’t been doing real well, but now they’re starting to do a little better.”
FAVORITE PRO ATHLETE AND WHY: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels. “He did the same thing I did. He had a really bad hitting slump, and I actually watched him to see how he reacted. I realized that no matter how long the slump is, you can come back.”
FUTURE PLANS: Welker said he would like to study architecture and play baseball in college, but he’s unsure what school he’ll attend.
NEW CASTLE —
It was a quick slip of the tongue.
High School Basketball: 1,2,3 Shoot! Local trio can really fill it up
Trey, triple, trifecta, three-ball, dagger, making it rain, a shot from way downtown. Whatever you want to call it, a 3-point shot has become a key part of high school basketball since it was introduced 26 years ago.
Our Opinion: Laurel must resolve cross-country questions
We readily admit we have no firsthand insight into a dispute involving Laurel High School’s cross-country coach. But we do know these controversies have consequences, and we think Laurel officials need to take some positive steps in order to minimize them.
NFL fines Steelers coach Mike Tomlin $100,000
Here’s another adjective Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin can call his ill-timed two-step onto the field last week against Baltimore. Expensive.
Photos, Story: Runners, community turn out to support ousted Laurel coach
Former Laurel High cross country coach Greg Schmitt has the support of his team members and their parents. The question, however, is whether the embattled coach has the support of the school district and its board of directors.
Laurel High: Cross country coach says losing his job ‘mind-boggling’
Greg Schmitt probably won’t get a chance at a three-peat. Schmitt confirmed last night that the Laurel School District has opened his position as the high school cross country coach. The job opening is posted on the district’s website.
College Football: Florida St., Ohio St take top 2 spots in BCS
Florida State and Ohio State are in position to play for the BCS national championship, though Auburn and Missouri are close enough behind in the BCS standings to put pressure on the Buckeyes.
High School Football: Neshannock’s Dovidio, Oliva lead Big Seven all-stars
The Neshannock High football team followed up its 2012 season with a repeat performance. Meanwhile, Laurel got back into the postseason for the first time since 2009.
Football News: Union grad to suit up for Team Europe — and Team USA
Jordon Rooney will be a busy man next month. And that has very little to do with Christmas. The 23-year-old will compete in a pair of football games a little over a week apart near the end of December.
NHL Hockey: Bruins snap skid against Pens with OT win
The surging Boston Bruins said they weren’t fazed by Sidney Crosby’s last-second goal. They proved it in overtime. Torey Krug scored 34 seconds into OT and the Bruins beat Pittsburgh 4-3 yesterday night, snapping a seven-game, regular-season losing streak to the Penguins in a matchup of the Eastern Conference’s top two teams.
Steve Treu: Steelers turn it around with turnovers
Troy Polamalu attempted his patented psycho blitz into the line of scrimmage, only to be stopped cold in his tracks. He bounced off right guard Shawn Lauvao and swiftly doubled back to his original position near midfield, five yards off the line.
- More Sports Headlines
- High School Basketball: 1,2,3 Shoot! Local trio can really fill it up