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.
PIAA Playoffs: It’s ’Canes vs. Hampton — again
The New Castle High boys basketball must go through Hampton once more. Hampton forced a fourth meeting against the Red Hurricane by crushing Erie McDowell last night in the second round of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs, 67-45, at Farrell High School.
Bounce Friday: 'Canes coverage and Let's Talk Hoops!
Check out our photo gallery, game story and video highlights from New Castle's big win over North Allegheny, then watch a special St. Patrick's Day episode of "Let's Talk Basketball!"
The Sports Blog: WPIAL title games, Steelers signings, Pitt’s miracle and Bucs on TV
The Palumbo Center is a great place for the WPIAL championships, because it has a big college feel to heighten the excitement, but it's just small enough to be quaint. However, the WPIAL may need to look into a change of venue for the boys games, which were all filled to the brim.
Larry Kelly: Different script, same ending to movie for 'Canes
“You were built for this moment.” Those were the words of New Castle High basketball coach Ralph Blundo as his team was ready to take the floor against Hampton for the WPIAL Class AAAA title at the A.J. Palumbo Center on the campus of Duquesne University on Saturday night.
Clutch coach: Intense practices, focus on film and lessons learned from local legends all help Blundo mold ’Canes into a history-making program
It all starts at the top. Like any quality organization, a foundation of success is built through strong leadership. That’s evident with the New Castle High boys basketball program.
'Canes capture third straight WPIAL title!
Three-peat. Triple Crown. Trey cool. Call it what you want, but you can call the 'Canes WPIAL champions — again. With a xx-xx victory over Hampton on Saturday night, the New Castle High basketball team captured its third straight WPIAL title.
WPIAL Playoffs: If you’re heading to ‘Canes game Saturday — better read this
If you plan on spending the day at the Ambridge field house tomorrow, be prepared to buy an additional ticket. Ambridge athletic officials notified New Castle High athletic director Sam Flora yesterday that they will not be stamping any fans who come into the gym tomorrow.
Larry Kelly: An inside look at ‘The Hurricane Way’
With New Castle’s 85-66 victory over Latrobe High on Saturday at North Allegheny High, the Red Hurricane have now won 74 WPIAL games in a row. As you might expect, the ’Canes are the favorite to win their third consecutive WPIAL championship.
Our Opinion: Action needed to prevent taxpayer losses at Sylvan Heights
Should New Castle taxpayers subsidize the operations of Sylvan Heights Golf Course? Our answer is a flat-out, simple no.
WPIAL Boys Playoffs: ’Canes get the No. 1 seed
The New Castle High boys basketball team nailed down the WPIAL’s top seed for a third straight year last night. Now the Red Hurricane is set to embark on a quest at capturing a third-straight district championship.
- More Sports Headlines
- PIAA Playoffs: It’s ’Canes vs. Hampton — again