Connor Coward Sparks Title Run For Underdog Seneca Valley
by Matt Shetler
A No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed is one of the rarest things in sports, so rare that it has never happened in the NCAA Tournament.
Don’t tell the kids from Seneca Valley that though as they not only took down No. 1 seed Hempfield, but Shaler, Pine-Richland and eventually No. 2 seed Baldwin en route to capturing the WPIAL baseball championship.
In the process the Raiders made some WPIAL history.
Seneca Valley became the first team in over 100 years to make the WPIAL championship game four years in a row. They also became the first team believed to win a WPIAL title with a losing record.
They made the postseason this year tied with North Hills for the third and final playoff spot in Class AAAA Section 1. Seneca Valley was 6-11 after the regular season and was the No. 16 seed in a 16-team playoff bracket. The Raiders, though, marched through the playoffs and took a 9-11 record into the title game at Consol Energy Park.
However like Hempfield, Shaler and Pine-Richland before them, No. 2 seed Baldwin found out that the Raiders, despite their record, weren’t your average No. 16 seed.
“After we beat Shaler, a real good hitting team, we started to think we had a realistic opportunity,” said Seneca Valley head coach Eric Semega. ” Everything started falling into place and we started executing.”
A big part of the reason that the Raiders barely made the playoffs to begin with was the fact that standout right-handed pitcher Connor Coward missed all of the regular season, except Seneca Valley’s opener, with a stress fracture in his back. Coward, a Virginia Tech recruit, was expected to be one of the best pitchers in all of the WPIAL this season after going 8-1 with a 1.60 ERA as a junior.
But Coward was able to make his return for the playoffs and was the winning pitcher in the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games.
During that span the Raiders outscored the opposition 13-6.
Against Baldwin, Coward pitched seven innings, allowed one earned run, six hits and struck out 11 to help the Raiders capture the crown.
“He had a big impact on our success, but I don’t want to take anything away from the rest of the team,” added Semega. “Anytime you can add one of the best arms in the WPIAL it is a bonus and he definitely had a huge impact on our success.”
The interesting part of their season is that the Raiders weren’t a bad team as 10 of their 11 of their losses came against playoff teams. But this Seneca Valley team couldn’t seem to overcome adversity early on, dropping six of their first nine.
Yet that ultimately turned out to be a learning experience as the Raiders didn’t make nearly as many errors in the postseason and they found ways to get key hits in games that they simply didn’t before.
“Early on it was a process for not only the players but the coaches,” said Semega. “We weren’t used to having the amount of things go wrong that did. It was just one thing after another but we fought through it. As we went into the playoffs we said let’s focus on now and not the past. I’m a big believer that you learn more from failure than success and whether or not that played a role I don’t know, but we ended up fighting through everything we were up against.”
The Raiders will get the opportunity to see if their recent stretch of success can continue when they open up the PIAA playoffs Monday against WPIAL third-place team Moon at 2 p.m. at Pullman Park.
At the end of the day Seneca Valley simply found a way to keep their season alive. We will see if they can continue to do the same over the course of the next couple of weeks.
In the process they could make some more history along the way.