Chris Masse on high school baseball: Predictions are far from easy to make

Picking baseball and softball winners is like throwing darts. These are sports in which you can do everything wrong and succeed and do everything right and fail sometimes. It is the funniest of games that way.

And yet I will give it a shot, starting with a look at District 4 baseball fields today and the softball tournaments tomorrow. To all those who prove my picks wrong, you’re welcome for the motivation.

Two-time defending 6A champion Williamsport competes through District 2 and is the No. 2 seed. It will host No. 3 Delaware Valley in an intriguing semifinal between teams who are a combined 28-9. The Warriors (13-5) feature a solid pitching staff that has a collective 2.27 ERA. Ryan Kruse is 4-1 and also has hit a team-high three home runs. Left-handers Kyle Caringi and Jon Zayas give Williamsport a strong pitching tandem and those two are a combined 9-1. The Millionaires (15-4) lost seven starters from last year’s state quarterfinalist, but have played hungry all season and have won 11 of their last 12 games. Top-seeded Hazleton dropped a heartbreaker to Williamsport in last year’s championship and the Cougars (16-3) are the pick to win the title.

District 4 Class AAAA

(5 teams, top 2 advance to states)

These five teams have beat up on each other throughout the season and a case could be made for each one, taking the crown. Defending champion Lewisburg (9-11) rallied from a 3-8 start to qualify through the power rankings and could be a tough out. The Green Dragons surged at the perfect time last year and a 2-0 win against quarterfinal opponent Shamokin was part of its late-season surge. Nick Shedleski was overpowering, throwing two shutouts in last year’s title run, while Owen Arndt and Josh Heath also have good arms.

The Shamokin-Lewisburg winner plays top-seeded Selinsgrove. The Seals (14-6) captured the HAC-I championship and have a potent pitching combination, featuring left-hander Logan Hile and right-hander Blaise Zeiders. They are a combined 12-2 with sub-2.00 ERAs and Hile has 63 strikeouts in 46 innings.

Mifflinburg and Danville meet in the other semifinal and the No. 2 Wildcats (14-5) feature the field’s best offense, hitting a collective .314. Darin Miller has hit three home runs and staff ace Cade Dressler is 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA. Danville (11-9) mirrors Selinsgrove with its one-two Trey Miller/Brandon McGaw, two fireballers averaging more than a strikeout per inning. McGaw also has 21 RBIs.

Tournament sleeper–Shamokin: The Indians were the only HAC-I team to beat Selinsgrove in 12 league games and allowed just 4 runs in their two contests. Mark Wetzel has a team-high 20 RBIs and Quinn Rollman scattered seven hits over seven innings against Lewisburg in that 2-0 decision.

Player to Watch–Andrew Ramirez, Lewisburg: An outstanding center fielder and leadoff hitter, Ramirez is hitting .400 with a .506 on-base percentage. The speedy senior has scored 22 times, not made an error and produced three hits in a crucial late-season win against Danville.

Projected semifinals: Selinsgrove over Shamokin; Danville over Mifflinburg

Projected final: Selinsgrove over Danville

Class AAA

(9 teams, top 2 advance)

This is one of the deepest fields in recent memories with several teams capable of representing District 4 well at states. Defending champion Montoursville (16-3) earned the top seed and won three games last week after hitting a late-season road bump. The Warriors host either No. 8 Troy or No. 9 Wellsboro in the quarterfinals and are battle-tested, playing one of the state’s most demanding schedules. Maryland-bound Logan Ott is 7-0 and senior Jaxon Dalena has been a part of three straight shutouts. The offense is potentially deep as well with Jaxon and Maddix Dalena surging late and Cameron Wood coming off a strong 2018 postseason.

Troy defeated Wellsboro 9-5 early this season but these are evenly-matched teams who will not be easy outs. Wellsboro left-hander Carson Davis is 4-1 and threw a four-hit shutout in a 1-0 playoff-clinching win against Northeast Bradford. Sophomore Zach Rowland is 4-2 and has surrendered just 20 hits in 36 2/3 innings. Troy (11-8) nearly reached the AA final last year and Tyler Williams is a dual threat, hitting .444 while striking out 42 in 37 innings. Evan Short has allowed 11 hits in 22 2/3 innings.

Athens or Loyalsock awaits whoever prevails on that side of the bracket. No. 5 Loyalsock captured the 2017 crown, dropped a heartbreaker in last year’s final and is surging into districts, winning five straight games. The Lancers overcame adversity and rallied late, igniting its playoff push by defeating Montoursville and Class AA top seed South Williamsport at the Backyard Brawl. Anthony Pastore threw a complete game six-hitter against Pottsville last week, Dane Armson has thrown 11 straight scoreless innings while Matt Worth shined in three relief outings against Montoursville. Loyalsock scored at least five runs in its last seven games.

No. 2 Mount Carmel (17-3) shared the HAC-III championship with South and hosts No. 7 Towanda. The Tornadoes have won 12 of their last 13 games and Vanderbilt-bound pitcher Thomas Schultz is 7-1 with a 0.34 ERA and 65 strikeouts. Tommy Reisinger averages nearly two strikeouts per inning and three starters are hitting above .400. Towanda (12-8) rallied from a slow start, winning eight straight games before dropping its final two. Devin Dunn is hitting .420 with 20 RBIs and Tanner Kunkle has 41 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings.

That winner will play either No. 6 Hughesville or No. 3 Central Columbia. The Spartans (14-6) have made a big turnaround following last year’s five-win season and ended on a high, beating Selinsgrove, 5-3 last Friday. Sophomore Dylon Pequignot has had a breakout season, going 6-1, and Jacob Corson is hitting .500 with two home runs and 16 RBIs. Hughesville handed Mount Carmel one of its three losses, opened the year 6-0 and finished second in the HAC-III.

Central (15-5) is the field’s hottest team, winning eight straight with victories against Mifflinburg, South, Mount Carmel and Blue Mountain along the way. St. John’s-bound pitcher Dominic Coombe has been locked in and threw 6 2/3 shutout innings in last Monday’s 1-0 victory against Schultz and Mount Carmel. Dylan Harris and Kade Davis threw a one-hitter against Hughesville last Thursday as the Blue Jays won, 5-3.

Tournament sleeper–Athens: The Wildcats (15-4) captured the District 4 Class AAAA championship two years ago and won the NTL-I title for a third straight year. Athens features a balanced offense and has three dependable pitchers. It opened the season 8-0 and has won five of its last seven games.

Player to watch–Jaret Stroup, Hughesville: The senior first baseman/pitcher has been a huge part of Hughesville’s success and has hit well down the stretch. Stroup has upped his average to .386 and has hit two home runs while driving in a team-high 18 runs. Stroup is a good defender and has provided quality pitching, striking out 21 in 20 innings.

Projected first-round winner: Troy

Projected semifinals: Montoursville over Loyalsock; Central over Mount Carmel

Projected final: Central over Montoursville

Class AA

(3 teams, top 2 advance)

While two of this field’s three teams will reach states, the runner-up will have to compete in a play-in game against the District 6-9 runner-up. South captured last year’s championship and No. 3 Sayre won the last two District 4 Class A titles. Bloomsburg lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to South last month, so all three teams have legitimate championship aspirations.

South ended a 16-year district title drought last year and will compete in the championship for a third straight year. The Mounties shared the HAC-III crown with Mount Carmel, splitting games with it and Hughesville, while also handing Williamsport its only loss in its last 12 games. St. Bonaventure-bound Tripp Breen is 8-1 with a 0.64 ERA and 97 strikeouts, while Logan Burkett is 6-3 with a 1.53 ERA and is averaging nearly a strikeout per inning.

The Mountie offense was sporadic at time, but has the potential to be dangerous. Luke Winner hit a walk-off home run in that 1-0 win against Bloomsburg, Hunter Finn hit a key two-run triple in last week’s comeback victory against North Penn-Mansfield, Burkett is hitting .368 and catcher Dom Harding has hit two home runs, including grand slam.

Bloomsburg (10-10) showed how dangerous it is in that second South contest and is a battle-tested team that defeated Class A top seed Millville, 13-0, Hughesville 13-1 and Danville 11-4. Blaise Hock took a shutout into the seventh inning at South and Evan Long is 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA. Long helps ignite the offense, hitting .481. Michael Petock is hitting .467 and Matt Mumaw .407 for a team that has a collective .345 average.

Tournament sleeper–Sayre: The Redskins have shown how tough they can be, sweeping two games from Athens and beating Towanda, 19-8. Sayre (11-8) hammered Athens the first time they played, 12-2 and closed the season on a three-game winning streak. The Redskins feature a good core of players who have ample playoff experience and are hitting a collective .324. Quinn Hanafin is hitting .558 with two home runs and 23 RBIs, while five starters are hitting .340 or higher.

Player to Watch–Pete Sinibaldi, South: The senior shortstop helps anchor the middle of South’s lineup and is one of the team’s returning starters. He delivered three hits at the Backyard Brawl and earned the save in that game, one of four he has this season.

Projected final: South over Bloomsburg

Class A

(5 teams, champion advances)

Millville has played in two of the last three finals, winning the 2016 championship. The top-seeded Quakers are a senior-laden team that is hitting .361 and that features one of the district’s premier pitchers in Zane Robbins. The hard-throwing senior is 7-1 with a 1.86 ERA, striking out 71 in 41 innings. Ryan Stevens, Dyson Savage and Will Holdren also have thrown well, while three starters are hitting .423 or higher.

Either No. 5 Sullivan County or No. 4 Canton will face Millville in the semifinals. Sullivan (11-9) is the only Mid-Penn team to defeat Millville, winning 8-6 last month. The Griffins won nine of 13 games at one point and feature a good offense that is hitting .324. Nate Higley has hit four home runs and driven in 22 runs, while Jake Doyle is hitting .485 with 12 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases. Sam Carpenter has 14 steals, is hitting .387 and also is a good pitcher who has a 2.14 ERA. Sullivan is competing in districts for the first time since 2013, having made an impressive turnaround.

Speaking of turnarounds, St. John Neumann has come a long way the last few years and is playoff-bound for consecutive years for the first time in program history. The No. 2 Knights (15-5) shattered the program record for wins and face No. 3 Montgomery in the semifinals. Neumann has only one senior, but has won 13 of its last 15 games. Keon Burkholder, Solomon Grant, Kyle Ferguson, Jaiden Cioffi and Naaman Amos are all quality pitchers and the offense has hit its stride late in the season. The Knights are trying to reach the championship for just the second time in program history and have scored at least seven runs in each of their last four wins.

Montgomery (12-7) swept the season series against Neumann, winning 3-1 and 7-4. Like Millville, Montgomery is senior-laden and started the season 7-2 while nearly upsetting Montoursville. Gage Yohn and Brayden Strouse form a strong pitching tandem and also are two of the team’s best hitters. Senior center fielder Hunter Budman closed his season with a flourish, freshman Colby Springman looks like he could be one of the area’s more exciting players over the next three seasons. It struggled some down the stretch, but when it is clicking Montgomery looks like a team with championship potential.

Tournament sleeper–Canton: Long-time coach Bob Rockwell has his team hitting its stride at the perfect time. The Warriors are young, but have grown up fast and won four straight games. Canton rallied from a 1-4 start and closed its season with some impressive victories against Troy, Sayre and Towanda. The Warriors have six starters hitting .310 or higher and sophomore Ben Knapp is batting .462 with 30 hits and 21 RBIs. Senior Michael Smithers threw a complete game seven-hitter in a 3-1 regular-season finale win against Towanda.

Player to watch–Jaiden Cioffi, Neumann: The team’s only senior, Cioffi also is one of the best players in program history. The versatile shortstop delivered his 100th career hit last week and is hitting .367 with 24 RBIs. He also has 36 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings pitched.

Projected semifinals: Millville over Canton; Montgomery over Neumann

Projected final: Millville over Montgomery

Dr. Masse’s Top Five

1. Williamsport (15-4)

2. Montoursville (16-3)

3. Loyalsock (12-8)

4. South Williamsport (15-4)

5. Hughesville (14-6)

Players of the Week

Keon Burkholder, Neumann and Kyle Caringi, Williamsport: Burkholder has become a nice weapon and went 6 for 11 with a double and seven RBIs as Neumann went undefeated last week. He also did not allow an earned run in earning his fourth straight win, striking out five against Sullivan County and scattering two hits. Caringi is sparking Williamsport with his bat and arm these days. He has delivered five straight multi-hit performances and went 7 for 12 with two doubles and four RBIs in three wins. He also allowed just two hits in 6 2/3 innings against Shikellamy, striking out nine.

Chris Masse covers high school baseball for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached by email at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter @docmasse.