The Central Catholic baseball team has made it to tonight's WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals, which puts the Vikings one win away from making it to a WPIAL championship for the first time since 1979.
It turns out that '79 baseball team is one for the ages. Not so much for what it accomplished, but for who was on the team.
Think of it: One high school baseball team in Western Pennsylvania had a future general manager in Major League Baseball, a future assistant GM in MLB and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. They were Mike Berger, Tony LaCava and Dan Marino.
The star catcher for that 1979 Central Catholic team was junior Mike Berger. He was in the news this week when he was promoted to GM of the Miami Marlins. Berger was assistant GM but moved up when former GM Dan Jennings moved to the field and became interim manager.
Berger was a fourth-round draft choice of the Pirates in 1980. That year, there were two outstanding senior catchers in the WPIAL. The other was Shaler's Doug Maggio, who was selected by the Phillies in the third round. Berger spent a number of years in the minor leagues, eventually playing in Class AAA for a few years with the Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers organizations.
LaCava was a senior on that 1979 Central Catholic team and has been the Toronto Blue Jays assistant GM for close to a decade.
The star senior pitcher-shortstop for Central 36 years ago was a big-haired Dan Marino (check out his high school picture). Need we say any more about him except that he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
The '79 Central Catholic team made it to the WPIAL Class AAA title game before losing to Hopewell and also made it to the state semifinals before losing to State College. And there is a tie from that team to this year's squad. The coach of Central Catholic is Frank LaCava, who is the younger brother of the Toronto Blue Jays assistant GM.
On top of that, Central Catholic's coach in 1979 was Joe Emanuele. A former teacher at the school, he still follows all of Central Catholic's sports teams and was in the stands Tuesday when Central Catholic defeated Seneca Valley in the WPIAL semifinals.
Emanuele (pictured to the right) is a warm-hearted man who is still plugging along after suffering a stroke a few years ago. He is extremely proud of his Central Catholic coaching days and of that 1979 team. You should have seen him proudly light up with joy when, after the game Tuesday, he was told by a friend that Berger was named the Marlins' GM.
"Joe is the best," said Frank LaCava.
Frank LaCava knows plenty about that 1979 team because of his older brother. And considering what some of those players became in life, that was a highly unusual team. Again, do you think manyhigh school teams in the country have produced two GMs and a Pro Football Hall of Famer?
"I just talked to Mike Berger [on Monday]," said Frank LaCava. "Those guys from that team stay in touch."
You can bet the players on that '79 team have some great memories. It was a year when the entire PIAA tournament was played over the course of a few days in Shippensburg. Let's relive some of those memories:
**** Marino made his name as a football quarterback, but he was absolutely terrific as a baseball player. The Kansas City Royals took him in the fourth round of the MLB draft but he decided to play football at Pitt.
Marino finished with a 12-0 pitching record in 1979. In the WPIAL semifinals against Chartiers Valley, Marino pitched a four-hitter and Central Catholic won, 2-1.
**** Back then, there were no pitching rules in high school. There was talk of Marino coming back on two days rest and pitching in the championship game against Hopewell at West Field in Munhall. But Marino said his shoulder was tight before the title game, so he played shortstop. Under pitching rules today, Marino would not have been allowed to pitch.
Jim Watson and Mark Jones pitched for Central Catholic against Hopewell. Central Catholic came in with a 16-2 record, but lost to Hopewell, 4-0. Hopewell had coach Joe Colella, who would go on to coach the Vikings for more than four decades.
Not to bring up bad memories, but Marino had a throwing error in the fifth that led to a run to make it 2-0. Marino was 1 for 3 batting and was hit by a pitch. LaCava (pictured in his days as the Blue Jays assistant GM) was 0 for 3. Berger was 2 for 3, but Hopewell's Greg Candelmo struck him out to end the game. Candelmo, a 5-9, 200-pound fireplug, was terrific in the postseason.
**** After the WPIAL playoffs came the PIAA tournament. The PIAA started state playoffs only two years earlier. Penn Hills, under coach Neil Gordon, had made it to the state final in 1977 and 1978, winning once.
This time, Central Catholic thought it had a chance to win a state championship and all the baseball and softball teams that qualified for the PIAA tournaments traveled to Shippensburg, where the entire tournament was played over a few days. The following year, all of the baseball and softball tournaments were double elimination played over five days in Shippensburg. I was at that 1980 tournament and loved it. Games all day long for five consecutive days. Tremendous.
Anyway, in the 1979 first round, Marino pitched again and tossed a five-hitter as Central Catholic defeated Cedar Crest, 6-1.
**** Next came City League champion Langley in the quarterfinals. Central Catholic won, 3-2, in eight innings, and Marino and Berger were involved in the winning run. Marino walked for the third time in the game and eventually moved to third. Berger then drove him in with a long sacrifice fly. It was Berger's 41st RBI of the season, which was a school record.
**** In the semifinals, Central Catholic played State College and State College prevailed with a 13-11 win.
Central Catholic put up a valiant effort, though. The Vikings trailed, 13-6, entering the final inning, but scored five runs to make things interesting. LaCava, Berger and Marino all had hits in the rally. Rich Doverspike, a strong hitter for Central, had homered earlier in the game. But he hit into a double play to end the game.
Oh, the memories. Maybe Central Catholic is making some more this season.
"I'm enjoying coaching these guys because they compete," said coach Frank LaCava. "This isn't our most talented team, but they have found a bond with each other and that's the important thing.
"Whenever I was over at Franklin Regional coaching under Larry Wayman, we won the WPIAL in 1997 and we weren't the most talented team that year, either.
"I think we maybe had more talent the last few years. We lost to Pine-Richland [in the quarterfinals] two years ago. We thought that was our team to do it. But this team here has that bond."
Central Catholic will play Shaler in the semifinals tonight at 7 at North Allegheny. The game has an interesting twist to it. Shaler will likely pitch senior Gavin Cannon. He used to play for Central Catholic before transferring to Shaler after his sophomore year.