Star-studded Hazleton-area team stays entrenched in race for state’s top prize – The Morning Call
Most high school baseball programs would appreciate the opportunity to have a player signed to a Division I school.
The Hazleton Area baseball team has several throughout the country.
Senior pitcher Nick Biasi has signed to attend Florida State. Senior shortstop Bryce Molinaro and junior receiver/outfielder Grant Russo have signed up for St. John’s. Junior pitcher/second baseman Brett Antolick made a verbal commitment to Texas A&M and pitcher Kyle Peters, another 11th grader, made a verbal commitment to UConn. Not to mention Jason Lazar, senior second baseman and receiver, who will continue his career at Lock Haven.
If baseball games were played on paper and depending on who has the most high-profile college rookies, Hazleton would be a heavy favorite to beat Liberty when the two meet at 4 p.m. Monday at East University’s Creekview Park. Stroudsburg.
But baseball games aren’t decided that way, and Cougars coach Russ Canzler is the first to remind his guys that college commitments are great, but must be followed by a lot of hard work.
Canzler knew all of this as he had a professional baseball career spanning more than a decade and played with seven different organizations. He played in the big leagues with Tampa Bay in 2011 and the Cleveland Indians in 2012 and spent part of his final season in pro ball with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in 2015.
“When you look at the number of kids going to prom, that’s probably an anomaly,” Canzler said. “I don’t know if we can expect to see that consistency with the type of players we have and the type of schools they go to. But what I’m trying to tell these guys is that this Just because you go to those kinds of schools doesn’t mean you have to play there. Your commitment to playing at that level is one thing, but succeeding in Division I is a whole different game.
Canzler wants his guys grounded and focused. This approach was the cornerstone of a 22-1 season that included a District 2 title and two PIAA playoff victories, the most recent being a 12-0, 5 inning rout of the Conference champion of Eastern Pennsylvania Emmaus.
Hazleton lost their first game of the season, 4-1 to North Penn on April 2, but have not lost since. The Cougars have won 13 games by shutout and scored at least 10 points in a game 14 times.
As dominant as they have been, you might think that complacency risks poisoning the mighty talent pool.
But the Cougars were just as dominant last year when they went 21-0 but lost their PIAA opener to North Penn, 3-1.
“That loss was definitely a motivating factor throughout the offseason and in our preseason practices this year,” Canzler said. “We had a lot of kids coming back from last year’s team who remembered that crushing loss. They are motivated.
Canzler said what happened last year and strong senior leadership made it easier for him.
“I don’t need to interfere as much because we have such good leadership,” he said. “Seniors are ready to hold people accountable and keep everyone ready and attentive. It’s a great feeling as a coach because I believe in the old adage that good teams are led by coaches, but great teams are led by players. They have done a great job leading the way and wanting to go further and pursue our ultimate goal.
Hazleton has never gone this far in the state tournament. Prior to their two wins last week, the Cougars were 1-5 all-time in PIAA playoff games.
However, if any team seems capable of taking the lore-rich program from Luzerne County to Penn State and the promised land of Pennsylvania for Thursday’s 4:30 a.m. state championship game, it’s this one.
Canzler is a graduate of Hazleton, and he admits advancing to AAU-style club teams was a big plus for his high school program.
“Even when I was a growing player in this area, the biggest challenge was getting exposure and getting to the right events,” he said. “What’s happening now with the showcases, with the travel ball, is these guys are coming out in front of these college coaches who in the past may have never heard of a kid from Hazleton, in Pennsylvania. It’s a big step for them. »
Canzler said he likes the blue-collar terminology applied to the children of Hazleton and anyone who plays in the North East.
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“Kids here play in 30 and 40 degrees and work in the winters and go outside when they can,” he said. “We’ve always had this type of blue-collar athlete, but now they’re seen by more college coaches. This is for all of Pennsylvania and the New England states. They can play in any weather.
Canzler’s team is 4-0 against EPC teams with two of the wins over Emmaus by a combined 21-0. There was also a 7-4 victory over Parkland on April 30 and a 16-3 rout of Easton on May 14.
Emmaus coach Jeremy Haas told a member of the local media that Hazleton were the best high school team he had ever seen.
Still, Canzler brushes off the hype.
“We don’t want to give the impression that we are something that we are not,” he said. “We have to come and play. We certainly applaud our guys for our accomplishments, but there’s still work to be done and we have great respect for Liberty. I am well aware of the success they have had this year. We don’t win as many games as they won without being a very good team. I try to follow as many teams as possible and it’s obviously a very successful and very well trained programme. At this point in the season, you expect every opponent to be the best team you’ve faced. I expect them to come to us with energy and play their best game.
Like Liberty coach Andy Pitsilos, Canzler tried to lower expectations and keep motivation high.
“We’ve heard about our players and their quality all season long,” he said. “But you have to keep high school kids humble. It doesn’t matter what others say about you or what the media says about you. It’s about the work you do, what you do, and how you react to failure and adversity. People may have different opinions about us and how good we are. But ultimately, we control our own destiny.