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Neil Walker WPIAL Baseball Showcase gives athletes the opportunity to shine

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Friday, June 7, 2024 | 5:40 p.m.


Norwin rising junior Jakob Howard took the field Friday morning at No Offseason Sports in Russellton and threw 10 to 12 balls in front of more than 40 local and regional college coaches.

An injury to his right ankle sustained a month ago during the high school season has healed and he is feeling no after-effects, he said.

“It was an incredible feeling to be here to show what I can do,” said Howard, one of several invited students among the more than 100 rising sophomore, junior and fourth-year students from across the WPIAL who participated in the Neil Walker WPIAL Baseball Showcase.

“When I saw I was invited, I thought, 'Sure, I'm going.' Anyone trying to find a college for the future appreciates that kind of attention. I was happy that my ankle felt really good and I was able to come here. This is a great way to start my summer.”

The WPIAL Baseball Showcase, founded in 2005 by then-Mt. Lebanon baseball coach Mark Saghy along with the late North Allegheny coach Tim Banner, former Plum coach Tom McCarthy and West Penn Baseball Prospects President Tony Villotti, is nearing the end of its second decade of serving the region's top baseball talent.

Walker himself remembers similar opportunities he had at Pine-Richland before being selected by the Pirates in the first round of the 2004 MLB Draft.

Walker helped run the showcase that now bears his name with baseball partners Chad Dewey and Sean Lubin, also Pine-Richland University graduates. He said this year's showcase continues the tradition of identifying and developing the solid baseball talent he knows exists throughout the WPIAL.

“There is so much talent in the WPIAL and sometimes it's hard for the kids to get recognized because they don't always have the opportunity to get into an environment like this,” said Dewey, who later played at George Washington College.

The showcase serves as a bridge from the high school season to the many local summer and travel league seasons throughout the region.

“It's always been the first weekend in June, and college coaches know that,” said Walker, who is now in his second year of being involved with the show. “They make it a point to be here because they know what they're going to see from the players.”

Saghy ran the show until 2022 before passing the baton to Walker and others.

“He said he was getting a little older and wanted to see if anyone wanted to take it over. We contacted him and said we would be happy to take it over,” Walker said.

“Mark was great and helped us with all of his contacts. He had a great database of college coaches in the area and a good system of knowing the kids coming up and some high school and summer coaches who could recommend some players. Last year we had about 125 kids and this year we're a little over 100. Most of all, it's about giving these kids the opportunity to be in front of a lot of coaches in just one day and the coaches can evaluate a lot of players without having to travel all over the place.”

Walker said several players did not take time off and participated in the showcase, just one day after being eliminated from the PIAA baseball playoffs on Thursday.

The only WPIAL baseball teams still in the PIAA playoffs are Eden Christian in Class A, Avonworth in Class 3A, Indiana in Class 4A and Bethel Park in Class 5A.

“Some of these kids are just starting to show up on college coaches' radar, others are looking to raise their profile, and still others may have committed (verbally) but want to see who else they can impress.”

Some pitchers and catchers who had practiced in the morning session picked up a bat to demonstrate their hitting power along with fielders whose fielding and throwing skills were tested.

“It's pretty cool to be part of an event like this, led by someone I was a huge fan of when he was with the Pirates,” said Anthony Jump, a rising senior catcher at Plum and one of eight Plum players who worked out in front of college coaches.

“Being from the WPIAL himself, he knows what it’s like to want to get your name out there.”

Jump was one of at least two dozen catchers who, in addition to catching the numerous pitchers, also got the chance to play his position and demonstrate his arm strength and accuracy on the way to second and third base.

Carter Kirsch, the starting catcher for WPIAL Class 4A semifinalist and PIAA qualifier Thomas Jefferson, was grateful for the opportunity to show what he can do.

“Doing what you do with coaches everywhere is great,” Kirsch said. “It's so competitive.”

Kirsch also caught Hempfield's Dane Willis during Willis' pitching session.

“Dane was throwing really well,” Kirsch said. “His curveball was really working. His fastball was getting better and better.”

Walker said he was pleased with the drier and cooler conditions and the no offseason facility that provided the setting for the exhibition, which also tested players through speed and agility drills conducted by a team from the Allegheny Health Network.

“We are excited to welcome the best kids in the WPIAL and many of the area’s college coaches,” said Joe Voloch, director of operations for No Offseason Sports.

“Having just completed our fourth field here, we look forward to hosting events like this. We want to do everything we can to help these kids get to the next level.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and Pittsburgh's eastern suburbs. A Clearfield native and Westminster (Pa.) graduate, Love joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at Clearfield Progress. Reach him at [email protected].