Asked what makes Class AAAA Section 1 so difficult year in and year, longtime Pine-Richland coach Kurt Wolfe put it succinctly.
“Tradition,” Wolfe said. “That’s No. 1.”
Six of the past seven champs in the WPIAL’s top classification have come from Section 1, a daily grind that appears to be no different this season. Entering the week, all six teams — Butler, Moon, North Allegheny, North Hills, Pine-Richland and Seneca Valley — had no more than two losses. With non-section play mostly over now until the end of the regular season, those six combined for just six losses outside the section that has produced nine of the past 14 WPIAL finalists in Class AAAA.
“This year’s no different. I love our section, I really do,” said fourth-year North Hills coach Randy Miller. “I have a lot of respect for the coaches and other teams we have in the section, and pretty much every night’s a dogfight, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Wolfe, who has been on Pine-Richland’s staff since 2000, believes what makes this season as tough as any in the “Quad North” is a wealth of pitching talent.
Butler boasts two young studs in sophomore Connor Ollio and junior Cade Negley; North Allegheny has left-handed Maryland recruit Jon Dignazio and fellow senior Jacob Fischbaugh; and another senior duo is strong at North Hills in Brendan Burke and Mike Serpa, just to name a few.
“This is as good as I’ve seen pitching throughout. It’s very impressive,” Wolfe said. “That’s why you see a lot of teams having success, especially outside the section too, because of the pitching. I think that’s a big part of it.”
It also helps that teams such as Miller’s Indians, who were once an “also-ran” — his term — in the section have been on the rise in recent years. North Hills has gone .500 in section play the past three seasons after winning just two games each of the previous two years.
With an impressive 6-1 start, including an 11-0 rout of Pine-Richland, perhaps this is the season the Indians break through — but it’s not easy to climb up these ranks.
“Until these guys get knocked off or have a couple down years, the favorites have got to be North Allegheny, Seneca Valley, Butler,” Miller said, ticking off four of the past five WPIAL Class AAAA champs before Central Catholic won out of Section 3 last season. “They’re the teams I look at and say, ‘We want to get to that level.’ Those teams have earned it. Every year, they put forth a good team, and again they’re there at the end, winning Class AAAA titles from our section.”
The top team from this year’s iteration of Section 1 will be determined eventually, but one competition that might be over is the one for best uniforms. Pine-Richland, with its sharp new jerseys, may have that claim locked down. The snazzy Rams uniforms feature a few different shades of green horizontal stripes above the waistband, a la the Houston Astros of the 1970s and ’80s.
“Hopefully we can play as good as the jerseys look,” Wolfe said.