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Knights Win Championship
August 11, 2013
By MATT CHANDIK
LOWER MERION — A handful of Aston Valley players showed up to Sunday afternoon’s third game of the Delco League finals at Narberth Playground with black T-shirts that carried along a message.
If that message was meant to ruffle feathers, it’s probably exactly what the Knights had in mind. While the words “It’s our league. Everybody else just plays in it” emblazoned in orange on the back of those shirts weren’t exactly a subtle shot at the rest of the Delco League, it served as a pretty decent reminder of what Aston Valley was one win away from doing.
Sure, the Knights talk the talk, but there’s little doubt, especially after Sunday’s dominating 7-3 win over the Mudcats, that they can walk the walk. The win marked Aston Valley’s second straight title, its third in four years and its fifth straight appearance in the league finals. Some had been apprehensive about using the “D” word around the team — dynasty — but leadoff man and team sparkplug Steve Maloney finally relented.
“Yeah, you can throw that word in there,” Maloney said. “It’s awesome. We won 22 of our last 24 games. We stuck together. We had some arguments in the middle of the year, but we’ve just got to keep playing. That’s our motto — play late in the year. You see in the standings, we’re always seventh, eighth at the end of June, but we know when to turn it on and turn it around.”
Aston Valley became the first back-to-back league champion since Wayne capped a three-peat in 2009. That streak was snapped by … Aston Valley, of course. Winning a championship always heightens expectations the following season and it also paints a massive target on the defending champions, something that was definitely felt in the Knights’ dugout this year.
“It’s a big target on our chest, especially after the way we won last year,” said Maloney, who battled intermittent showers after the skies randomly opened up and started downpouring beer and champagne all over him. “We like to have fun. We always like to compare ourselves to the ’93 Phillies. It was a team that a lot of teams didn’t like, but we went out there and we had fun. Three out of four says something. Three out of four speaks volumes.”
So did the Knights’ play against the Mudcats. It was clear from the start that the deep Aston Valley lineup wouldn’t be held nearly as silent as it had been in the first two games when it scored “only” six combined runs. The Knights loaded the bases in the first inning, only to be foiled by a pair of masterful Marty McKeone strikeouts, but in the second, they didn’t make that mistake.
Singles from Ed Speakman, Bill Hollingsworth and Kenny Elkind loaded the bases for Maloney, who stroked a sacrifice fly to left field. Sun Valley All-Delco Sammy Farnell, Chad Stecker and another Sun Valley All-Delco, John Plasha, all hit RBI singles to push the lead to 4-0. From there, it was clear that Narberth was on its heels and asking a team that hadn’t scored all series to score at least five runs seemed a tall task.
“It’s a great feeling,” starting pitcher Justin Hanley said. “It’s my first year with these guys and they welcomed me with open arms. There’s no better feeling. It’s a good feeling getting an early lead like that and with our lineup, I’d put them up against anybody.”
Tough to argue. The Knights smashed out 14 hits and were never threatened all series. Narberth got its first run of the series when Steve Brouwers looped in an RBI single to bring home Mike Galetta, the 2007 Daily Times Player of the Year out of The Haverford School. Undaunted, the Knights scratched out three more runs in the top of the sixth to create more separation. That separation was needed when Monsignor Bonner All-Delco Steve DeBarberie annihilated a Matt Wilcox pitch for a majestic two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh before Wilcox closed out the game.
“That’s the only bomb I’ll ever be OK with giving up,” said Wilcox, beer in tow in his right hand. “That’s the only one.”
The Knights brought in Wilcox three seasons ago to add to their pitching depth and the former Collingdale ace has treated them well since then. His arm has been through some wars, though, and while he initially pondered the idea of not playing next year, it seems more likely that a reduced role is in the cards for him.
“It’s starting to hurt,” Wilcox said as he rattled off the laundry list of things wrong with his left arm. “… I may come back and throw a little less, depending on the situation, just to get qualified. It’s taking a toll on my body. All those years in Collingdale, throwing so much. This is definitely a nice way to go out.”
But just like this year when it said full goodbyes and partial goodbyes to some of its longstanding players, Aston Valley has the tools to reload. Sunday, there were nearly a dozen bench players sitting around, waiting for an opportunity that never came. It will come, though, and they’ll be expected to carry the torch for the Delco League’s newest dynasty.
The Knights might have to do without outfielder Chad Stecker, too. The cleanup hitter will be a first-time father to a little girl in two months, so there will be a lot of balancing to do if he wants to contribute the same amount that he’s given Aston Valley recently. But if he can’t play again, this was a special going-away present.
“It never does (get old),” Stecker said. “Winning’s always good. Any time you win is exciting, but it was a little less stressful this time (after having to come back from down 0-2 against Wayne). It was definitely a lot easier route winning the first two games. Last year was unbelievable, but winning in itself is great.”
The difference between the two titles was also evident for Farnell, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet.
“It feels great,” said Farnell, who was 4-for-5 with two runs scored and an RBI. “This year was a sweep, last year we won in five, but it’s just great to come out here and win another championship.”
And while their shirts might need to go through the washing machine once or twice to remove the unique cologne of beer and champagne, it’s something that’s well worth it every single time.
So is that title of dynasty.
Brian Campbell makes it another shutout for Aston Valley
August 9, 2013
By MATT CHANDIK
ASTON — Fresh off their thrilling come-from-behind Delco League championship last year, Aston Valley veteran standouts Steve Maloney and Freddy Hilliard put on their best recruiting hats and got to work in order to replenish the Knights’ stable of quality arms.
It didn’t help that Dave Ciccone rode off into the sunset a few beers after Aston Valley dethroned Wayne, making sure he retired on the highest note possible but leaving a big hole in the Knights’ pitching staff, and Aston Valley had already envisioned employing a deeper rotation in 2013. That was compounded when Hilliard decided that he’d only make himself available to pitch once a week.
So naturally, Hilliard and Maloney got to work on a guy that hadn’t pitched since 2010 and was coming off an avulsion fracture to his pitching elbow. The pair set their sights on Widener graduate and pitching coach Brian Campbell, who spent three years in the American Association with the Lincoln (Neb.) Saltdogs before suffering his injury. Campbell’s time away from the mound didn’t put a damper on the efforts by Maloney and Hilliard, either.
“It’s my first year back. I just came out of retirement,” Campbell said. “Freddy and I were on the same team back in the day and then Steve and Freddy got on the horn and begged me to come back.”
In what has emerged as a pattern over the past few years, Aston Valley’s choice to go after Campbell is proving to be a very good one. The Cardinal O’Hara All-Delco only allowed a pair of hits that helped offset his five walks allowed as the defending champion Knights blanked Narberth, 4-0, in Game 2 of the best-of-five series at Jim Buggy Memorial Field Saturday.
Aston Valley, which won the opener 2-0, will go for its second straight title and third in four years this afternoon at 2 at Narberth Playground. The Knights will send out Justin Hanley to the bump, while the Mudcats will counter with Marty McKeone.
Last year, Aston Valley fell into an 0-2 hole before stunning Wayne with three straight wins to cap off an incredible comeback. This time around, the Knights are up 2-0 because, well, it’s obviously pretty hard to lose games when you don’t give up any runs. In two games, Hilliard and Campbell have held Narberth to all of four hits and zero runs. Even when the Mudcats got runners Saturday, they promptly ended their threats by hitting into three inning-ending double plays.
That’s one way to give your pitcher help. Another great one? Try spotting him a 3-0 first-inning lead. After Campbell set down Narberth 1-2-3 in the top of the first, the Knights got to work. Chad Hug brought home Sun Valley All-Delco Sammy Farnell with a sharp line drive to left field. One batter later, Campbell got support from his battery mate and future player at Widener, Ed Speakman. The Chichester native, who is a few weeks away from reporting to Widener, dropped in a single past a diving Monsignor Bonner graduate Matt DeBarberie to plate Chad Stecker and Hug.
“He was just trying to impress his coach,” Campbell jokingly said of Speakman.
“Yeah, exactly,” said Speakman, who was 2-for-3 with those two RBIs. “I was just trying to put the ball in play somewhere and make something happen. I’ll take it.”
That was all the support Campbell needed the rest of the way as he merely tried to pitch to contact and allow his team to make the plays behind him. He found the time to ring up three strikeouts, but also tallied nine groundball outs and was the beneficiary of both slick fielding and bad baserunning on those rally-killing twin killings.
Hug tracked down a fifth-inning sure hit up the middle and flipped it to Joe Poduslenko, who tossed it over to Rob Caruso for a spectacular 4-6-3 double play. That was as routine as they got, though. An inning earlier, Stecker gunned down Mike Galetta, the 2007 Daily Times Player of the Year out of The Haverford School, after the latter was caught too close to second base on a sinking fly ball. In the sixth, Poduslenko snared a DeBarberie line drive and flipped the ball over to Hug to double up Anthony Perretti.
“We got three double plays to end innings,” said Campbell, the surprise evident in his voice. “It was nice to get the help there.”
The final nail in Narberth’s coffin came in the sixth inning as Aston Valley added an insurance run in stylish fashion. Hug doubled and Speakman moved him over with a single, then Dave News lofted a fly ball to Steve DeBarberie in right field. The Monsignor Bonner All-Delco plucked the ball out of the air and unloaded a nearly perfect throw to catcher Marco Menna, but Hug’s gritty, flat-out hustle enabled him to swipe the corner of the plate with his left hand and give Campbell an extra boost.
“(Menna) was giving me the outside of the plate,” Hug said, “so I was coming in on the outside the whole way and the ball was kind of hit shallow. I kind of had to figure I was going to have to make a good slide there.”
Aston Valley is one win away from grabbing more Delco League hardware and perhaps emphatically stamping its name as the new league gold standard. With one more win, it would potentially be time to start unleashing the rarely-uttered word in sports: “dynasty”. But the Knights won’t be the ones counting their champagne bottles before they’re uncorked. They know what they did to Wayne last year and they know that a very good Narberth team isn’t finished until three Knights wins have been put up, but Aston Valley is still confident.
“(The lead) is huge,” said Speakman, who’s in his first year on the Knights. “All the pressure’s on them. We’ve just got to show up and finish it. I wouldn’t want to be in (Narberth’s) shoes.”
Funny, that’s exactly where the Knights were this time last year.
Fred Hilliard shows arm is still effective as Aston Valley wins opener
August 8, 2013
By MATT SMITH
ASTON — Why did Fred Hilliard decide to end a brief retirement and resume his career in the Delco League?
“After coaching is done at Malvern (Prep), I need something to do,” said the Aston Valley pitcher. “And I can’t hit a golf ball that well.”
So, he’s back with the Knights for at least one more go-round. He is no longer picking it at shortstop, but Hilliard remains a dominant force on the mound. Thursday night, he pitched a gem opposite Narberth starter Toby MacCart, who kept pace with Hilliard until the bottom of the sixth inning.
Still blowing smoke by players at least 10 years his junior, Hilliard twirled a two-hit shutout to lead Aston Valley to a 2-0 victory in Game 1 of the Delco League championship series with Narberth. The series continues Saturday afternoon at 2 o’clock at Jim Buggy Memorial Field.
Hilliard could have left his playing days behind last summer when the Knights rallied to defeat Wayne in five games to claim the Delco League title. He thought that would be the plan ... until he started hearing it from teammate Steve Maloney.
“I retired from playing the field, I guess you can say,” Hilliard said. “Stevie was pretty relentless in the offseason. I don’t think he was going to let me walk away and not be here. And, you know, I still enjoy competing, so ... It’s nice to come back here with the guys, but I don’t miss grinding it out at shortstop in 100-degree weather like I used to. I don’t have to dive and jump and slide for balls like I used to. I have no problem if I’m semi-retired. I’ll take it.”
The Knights are happy with his decision to pitch this season.
“Freddie’s a die-hard,” player-manager Marco Spero said. “It’s what he does, you know? He just loves to play, works hard and stays focused. We knew that he still had it. That was kind of our thing this year, was to get him out and egg him on a little bit. Knowing his competitive nature, he was going to do it. We wanted him here just to throw for us. It all kind of balanced out, and he’s very good at it.”
The competitive fire still burns for Hilliard. He worked around three walks and struck out five while getting plenty of help from his defense, notably his infield of third baseman Sam Farnell, shortstop Joe Poduslenko (who played under Hilliard at Malvern in the spring), second baseman Chad Hug and first baseman Rob Caruso. The Knights turned a pair of double plays, including a textbook 5-4-3 to end the fourth inning.
“There’s nothing like it, and I don’t care how old you get. It means the world to these guys to be able to go after another championship,” Hilliard said. “If I can still produce and help them win, I’m going to be out here and try to get us another title. It’s a blast coming out here. It’s only part-time, just to pitch. It still gets me out of the house and allows me to go out there and fill that void somehow.”
After his teammates finally got him some runs to work with, Hilliard went out for the seventh inning to close the deal, but found himself in trouble when he issued back-to-back walks. Hilliard bounced back to get Anthony Perretti on strikes and forced Matt Coleman to hit a grounder to second to end the game.
The Knights had gone 13Ï innings in the postseason without plating a run for Hilliard. Last week, he allowed two runs over eight innings against Middletown but lost the game because Aston Valley’s bats were shut down. Hilliard had a lot working that day, as was the case Thursday night.
“You watch, (Saturday) they’ll come out and score 15,” Hilliard said, laughing. “The guys ... I just hope they’re not pressing up there. We’ve got a great lineup and we’re going to hit. ... I just don’t want them to think, ‘We’ve gotta score for Freddie, we’ve gotta score for Freddie’ My job is to keep throwing zeroes until they can score.”
With the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth, MacCart uncorked a wild pitch, prompting Caruso to dart home from third base and Marco Menna to chase after the ball. The ensuing play at the plate was bang-bang, but Caruso got in under the tag of a covering MacCart.
Just like that, Freddie got a run. The veteran right-hander did the rest.
Emblematic of the pitching duel on hand, the Knights scratched out a second run when catcher Ed Speakman blooped one over the head of Coleman at second base into no-man’s land for an RBI single.
An infield single in the second inning was the only hit MacCart allowed leading into the sixth. The lack of offense may or may not be a sign of things to come.
“I’m not going to worry about it too much. ... Guys are still hitting the ball hard,” Spero said. “Their potential to score a lot of runs, it’s always there.”
It won’t matter if the pitching continues to steal the spotlight. But Hilliard sure has set the bar high for the rest of Aston Valley’s starters.