March is a month known more for basketball madness than baseball. But Colin Harrington and George Roberts’ early-season success at major NCAA Division I programs deflected just a bit of the spotlight to the diamond during Final Four weekend.
Harrington, a Bishop McCort graduate, starts in the outfield for the University of Virginia, a team that advanced to the College World Series a year ago. Roberts, a Forest Hills product, is a slugging first baseman for a Kent State team that was a regional finalist last spring. Feature stories on each player appear on Page B5.
To have two impact Division I baseball players from the region is quite a feat. It says a lot about the talent and work ethic of Harrington and Roberts, two former AAABA League stars.
Harrington settles into new role at Virginia
Roberts off to fast start for Kent State
“It just shows that baseball is picking up around our area,” said Roberts, a junior batting .326 for the Golden Flashes. “Colin is tough. He’s doing some great things in Virginia. There’s others like Austin Urban (in the Chicago Cubs system) and Drew Westover (at Pitt-Johnstown) who are doing well. Our area is getting stronger.
“Rick’s baseball school helps out a lot. Him and Mike are doing a real good job with all the travel teams. The area is a lot more competitive with baseball.”
Roberts referred to his older brother Rick Roberts and former major league pitcher Mike Holtz. The duo operates year-round ERA Sports Inc. baseball facilities in Richland Township and Altoona. They also run a Flood City Elite travel program.
Such baseball opportunities certainly have improved the region’s talent pool and likely will have an even greater impact in years to come.
Rick Roberts’ pro career that took him as high as the Class AAA level with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The well-known ERA instructor believes more players like George Roberts and Harrington soon will emerge.
“The numbers (in baseball) might be down overall but what we do have coming through has potential,” Rick Roberts said. “In our building I’ve had a lot of kids coming here the last five or six years since we’ve started, and you can see the difference mechanically. It’s impressive.
“The huge thing is their parents know what to look for and what’s good for their kids and what’s bad for their kids. We didn’t have programs like this when I was growing up. I didn’t have people teaching me proper mechanics. The kids who started at a young age don't have the bad habits. You’ll see a really big difference in them.”
Pitt-Johnstown baseball coach Todd Williams believes today’s athletes often focus on their best sport rather than playing two or three sports. Indoor facilities enable players to practice year-round, which once was unheard of in western Pennsylvania, where winters traditionally are much harsher than this year’s mild weather.
“People are becoming more individualized in sports,” said Williams, who has led UPJ to 214 wins in the past seven-plus seasons and has more than 350 career victories. “People are not playing multiple sports as much. With the advent of these travel teams, guys are committing to a sport and trying to make what they can out of it.
“I’m seeing this in all sports, not just baseball. Basketball, they play year-round. Soccer plays year-round. Volleyball plays year-round. It seems like people are trying to find their niche and stick with it.”
Harrington said he and other area players have learned from dedicated coaches and instructors from youth leagues right through high school and AAABA League.
“I think it’s a testament to all the mentors, great coaches and people associated with baseball in the area,” Harrington said. “John DeFazio has worked with me since I was in sixth or seventh grade. Every time I’m home I go to him for batting practice. There are Chris Pfeil, Kerry Pfeil, from Pony and AAABA, the Wesner brothers, Garth and Ben, from Little League, Denny Altimore and Dean Gindlesperger and my family.
“It tells the story of Johnstown. This is a tight-knit community. People want you to succeed and a lot of people are willing to help you. I’ve been fortunate to have all these people around me to help me get better.”
The story of Harrington and Roberts only can boost the region’s baseball scene. The players are proof that talent, dedication and hard work don’t go unrewarded.
“It’s great for the area,” said Forest Hills coach Joe Carpenter, who was George Roberts’ high school coach. “In an era when you’re getting less and less AAABA teams, and it seems like baseball isn’t as strong as it used to be, to have a couple kids play Division I is great.
“Few and far between are players who can play in Division I,” he added. “George grew up with baseball. He put the time in and now he’s getting out of it what he put into it. It proves if you work hard good things happen.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.
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