Bucks County Herald

Baseball:

New Hope hopes for district repeat

STEVE SHERMAN



New Hope senior pitcher Matt Benda.

Last year, New Hope-Solebury entered the season with more questions than answers.

For one, after District One was regrouped into six classifications (from the previous four), the Lions decided to play up at the Class AAAA level in order to avoid a sub-regional route to states that exists in Class AAA.

“It was definitely a challenge for us,” New Hope manager Tony Vlahovic admitted. “But I think it was good for our players and our team to step up to that challenge and take that on.”

One of the smallest Class AAAA schools in the state, the Lions excelled at the higher level in 2017, winning 10 of their final 12 games on their way to the District One crown and an accompanying berth in states.

It was the first time in eight years that New Hope won districts and the first time under Vlahovic, who took Bicentennial Athletic League (BAL) Independence Coach of the Year honors. Winning the championship was significant, especially since 10 of the players were underclassmen and the Lions had just two seniors on their roster.

“We didn’t know how our season was going to go because we had so many guys playing for the first time at the varsity level,” said senior centerfielder Kevin Dougherty, who earned first-team all-BAL accolades after hitting .334.

“More than anything, we just jelled together as a team. We had a really strong bond last year.

“We weren’t the most talented team in the district, but the camaraderie we had on the team just carried us to that district title that we won.”

Before New Hope got onto its late season roll, the Lions experienced some bumps along the way.

Three consecutive midseason losses saw New Hope waffling along at 5-5 before the manager made some changes. Among them was a bold move to play freshman Cameron Mertz at shortstop and switch then sophomore Jack Gawason to third base.

“People were a little skeptical just because he was a freshman,” Dougherty explained of Mertz. “But we knew he was one of the most talented kids on the team.

“He plays year-round with great AAU teams. He came in and did a great job at short, which is a tough position to cover.

“Jack (Gawason) did a great job switching to third base. He made the transition pretty seamless and made some incredible plays for us in the playoffs.”

Gawason’s good play at the hot corner included picking off a runner for the second out in the top of the seventh inning with New Hope clinging to a 1-0 lead in the district championship win over Octorara.

“More than the changes, it was the guys understanding the team concept,” added Vlahovic, who is a big believer in the mental aspects of the game.

The coach said he always builds some type of mental exercise into practice. Additionally, he turned his team on to Steve Springer’s Quality At-Bats (QAB) program five years ago.

A pro scout and performance coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, Springer spent parts of two seasons in the early 1990s with the Mets and the Indians and had a Minor League career that spanned 14 seasons (1982-1995).

But Springer didn’t even start for his high school team. Despite that, he wound up attending the University of Utah on a full scholarship. And in more than 1,500 games played in the minors, he slugged 128 home runs and collected 1,592 hits.

Springer preaches purpose with each plate appearance and the Lions have bought into every bit of his program.

“There are a lot of guys who say, ‘I want to hit .400 this year,’ ” Dougherty explained. “We focus on doing a job for the team when you get up to the plate – having a good quality at-bat average rather than a good batting average.

“In the long run, that’s going to lead to team success.”

The team batting average has gone up 20 points each year since Vlahovic installed the Quality At-Bats approach to hitting. At the end of the season, Vlahovic doles out a special trophy to the player with the most QABs.

“Baseball is a difficult game to play and it will humble you very quickly,” the manager explained.

“Failure is built into the game. We teach the guys it’s not really failing; it’s an opportunity to learn something.”

As the skipper, Vlahovic focuses on the mental aspects of the game – taking one pitch at a time, learning how to breathe. He said many coaches bypass what he considers the game’s focal point.

“When you ask most coaches and players how much of the game is mental, they’ll say, ‘Anywhere from 80 to 95 percent,’ ” the coach explained. “Then you ask that same coach or player how much time do you spend on the mental aspects and they’ll probably tell you ‘zero.’ ”

Vlahovic has guided the team since the 2011 season. Before then, former skipper Matt Schram led New Hope to back-to-back district titles in 2008 and ’09. The coaches and players believe this team is also poised to repeat as District One champs.

“We can defend our District One title; that’s one of our goals,” Vlahovic admitted.

“I feel extremely confident in our ability to repeat,” Dougherty added. “But we can’t rest on what we did last year; we need to work even harder to get back there.

“We’re going to have a target on our backs because people know we’re a good team. With the team we have, I feel confident we can go back-to-back; there’s just so much trust among all of these guys.”

Leading the Lions back onto the field is senior righthander Matt Benda, a first-team all-BAL Independence nominee who blanked both opponents in districts last year; he tossed a complete-game three-hitter in the district title tilt.

After going 9-2 last season, Benda will have plenty of help on the hill this year from an arsenal of eight New Hope pitchers, including southpaw Tucker Wittman, a senior who earned second-team all-BAL honors as a junior on the mound and as a utility infielder who led the team in batting, hitting .532.

Deven Smith, a 6’3”, 200-pound sophomore who also starts in the outfield, is back as the team’s closer, a role he thrived in last year.

“He has ice in his veins; he would come into the game late and wouldn’t flinch,” Vlahovic explained. “For a 14-year-old, that’s pretty impressive.”

Junior Connor Campbell is the Lions’ other corner outfielder, so New Hope has plenty of veteran leadership to rake in fly balls. Of course, Mertz and Gawason are back at their respective posts in the infield and they’re joined by junior Mike Lehman, who is also returning.

Brand new behind the plate is catcher John Mangan, who takes the position at backstop for the departed Dan Doherty, the second-leading hitter in 2017 after batting .482. Dan’s brother, Blake, a 6’3”, 215-pound junior who also pitches, takes over at first base for the departed Brendan Shadle, who earned the team QAB trophy last year.

For the third straight season, the Lions are hosting what they call their Unified Game on April 14. Held each year in support of Special Olympics, the game pits the New Hope varsity team against a group of players from neighboring Solebury School. Selected Special Olympians pitch and catch.

“They’re given a gift to be able to play a sport,” Vlahovic explained. “It’s important that they realize that and that they give back to people who don’t have those opportunities.”

Vlahovic is hoping that the idea catches on and that other schools agree to participate in the Special Olympics event.

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