Fresh off D-10 title, Dragons look to make run in state playoffs

The Warren Area High School baseball team takes on New Castle today at 1 p.m. at Erie’s Ainsworth Field in the first round of the PIAA Class 4A state playoffs.

A week removed from their District 10 championship, the Warren Dragons are set to take the field in the state playoffs today when they battle New Castle in the Class 4A first round (Ainsworth Field, 1 p.m.).

It’s been well-documented that the Dragons (16-6) were a bit snakebi

t in close games during the regular season, but they have flipped the script in the playoffs, with a 2-1 win over Slippery Rock in the D-10 semis, followed by their 5-4 win over General McLane in the title game.

They trailed in both games, but this battle-tested group isn’t phased by a deficit, or by the pressure that comes in playing in big games.

In fact, they thrive on it.

Their pitching, which was so good during the regular season, has continued that trend in the playoffs. Ben Berdine was masterful in the win over Slippery Rock, while one mistake to GM standout Derek Fay was the only blemish on an otherwise terrific performance from Ryan Rafalski in the title game.

Catcher Aidan Morrison, Ben Berdine (middle), Micah Passmore and the Warren Dragons take on New Castle today in the first round of the state playoffs.

Of course, Rafalski got his revenge, delivering the walk-off winner.

Coach Rick Eaton has both Berdine, Rafalski and Mitch Grosch available against the Hurricanes (11-10) today. Along with Hunter Loomis and Nick Hussey, the Dragons boast the kind of pitching depth needed to make a run in the state playoffs.

“We have legitimate guys who throw in the low 80s, 83-84” Eaton said.

And no matter which one of them gets the call, like they have all season, they will have the benefit of great defense behind them, including Aidan Morrison behind the plate. The Canisius recruit is certainly on a short list when it comes to the best backstops in the state.

In order to do make the run they believe they are capable of, they will need to find a way to figure out New Castle sophomore Rocco Bernadina, the odds on favorite to get the starting pitching nod for the WPIAL third-place team.

Bernadina is the staff ace with a 5-1 record to go along with 1.57 ERA in 35 2/3 inning pitched, just 22 hits allowed, 14 walks and 44 strikeouts.

The 6-4 righty has been brilliant in the postseason, including a complete game, 2-hit shutout against Yough in the WPIAL third-place game, which included a career-high 14 strikeouts.

“Rocco doesn’t pitch like he’s a sophomore,” New Castle coach Bill Cook told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Paul Schofield following the win. “He plays like a veteran.”

Said Eaton: “I would think they’ll be pitching him, but we’ll be prepared either way.”

At least in terms of stats, the two teams boast similar offenses.

The Hurricanes, who entered the WPIAL playoffs as the No. 9 seed, have a .325 team batting average, led by senior Matt Senchak (.446, 7 doubles, 2 triples 1 home run), and fellow seniors Brayen Cartwright (.417, 2 home runs) and Nic Morrell (.397, 6 doubles).

Logan Gibson’s (.360, 2 doubles) RBI single in the second inning against Pitt recruit Jarrett Bach accounted for the lone-run in the third-place game win.

“They’re very comfortable playing a 1-0 game,” Eaton said. “They’ve been playing the same kind of games we have.”

On the other side, Bernadina will be facing a Dragon lineup that is hitting .315 as a team.

Grosch, Micah Passmore, Austyn Cummings, Morrison, Rafalski, Ryan Arnold, Berdine and James Swanson make up that group, and all have come through with key hits at different points in the season.

Morrision blasted a 3-run home run in the title game, and Grosch (single), Passmore (fielder’s choice), Cummings (single) and Morrison (intentional walk) all reached before Rafalski ended the game against the Lancers.

In the semifinal win over Slippery Rock, it was Swanson and Grosch that came through with the key hits.

And much more than just the offense and pitching, the defense has made it so that all three phases of the game are peaking at the right time.

That includes everyone mentioned above, and also Tyler Gustafson, who was stellar at second base in the win over GM.

“We definitely have a solid defense overall,” Eaton said. “Aidan and Lance, two seniors up the middle, neither one have made an error all season. We have speed and good arms in the outfield. The infield, Micah has stepped up as the full time third basemen and Grosch up the middle going between second and short (when) Rafalski pitches. Gustafson when he’s in there at second base and Hussey when Berdine pitches has stepped up at first.”

The Dragons have had a week off and the Hurricanes six days, which has allowed for some extra practice time.

And, while there might be some nerves, this is a Warren team that has had plenty of guys who have a lot of big-game experience.

They will be ready.

“We’ve really been after it Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Eaton said. “Just making sure we’re getting our swings, going over all the little things and getting our scouting report in. We’ve had a good week of practice and we’re ready to go.”