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Purple Eagles earn diamond titles trifecta

By Mike Wertman, Sports Writer Posted 24 June 2014 at 12:00 am

Photo contributed by Bruce Landis – Members of the Niagara-Orleans League and Section VI Class A champion Albion baseball squad include, in front from left, Trey Hart, Jacoby Miller, Dominic DiCureia, Aaron Burnside, Jason Downs and Matt Howell. In back are Coach Bruce Blanchard, Austin Loyd, Zach McMullen, Connor Barleben, Steven Stauss, John Warne, John Krieger, Noah Preston, Andrew Ashworth and Coach Bill Dambra.

With only four starters returning, there were plenty of question marks dotting the Albion High varsity baseball team’s lineup when preseason practice began.

However, the Purple Eagles perfectly meshed that veteran quartet of senior catcher John Warne, senior pitcher/shortstop Connor Barleben, senior first baseman Steven Stauss and sophomore center fielder Trey Hart with solid contributions from an otherwise predominantly underclassman group to capture both a third straight Niagara-Orleans League title as well as the Section VI Class A2 and overall Class A championships to earn a spot in the state playoffs.

“I really didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the year,” said Coach Bruce Blanchard. “We had good veteran leadership but we didn’t know how well the team would round out. And with the bad weather we had it was a tough beginning. But we got great senior leadership, the guys found their roles and their niches and we built from there.”

Senior John Krieger (designated hitter, left field); juniors Austin Loyd (pitcher/leftfield), Dominic DiCureia (third base), Aaron Burnside (second base) and sophomore Jason Downs (shortstop/second base/pitcher) helped to round out the starting lineup for Albion which finished with a 17-3 overall record after being nipped 3-2 by Pittsford Sutherland in the state quarterfinals.

Loyd along with Downs, Burnside and spot starter sophomore Evan Pappalardo joined with Barleben, who was Albion’s only experienced varsity pitcher heading into the season, to give the Purple Eagles a formidable pitching staff.

The Purple Eagles roster also included senior Zach McMullen and juniors Jacoby Miller, Matt Howell and Andy Ashworth.

“It was a total team effort led by the three big guys (Warne, Barleben and Stauss). The kids really all stepped up their games,” said Blanchard who points to an early season 8-7 home field loss to Akron as the real spark to the successful season.

“That loss woke us up and got us going,” said Blanchard. “And the Medina game right after that (a 7-5 Albion win) when John hit the big home run was big as well. After that we just got more and more confident as the season went on.”

Keeping the momentum from the 13-1 N-O title season run, the Purple Eagles then rattled off four straight sectional victories to claim top Section VI Class A honors with two of those contests being down to the wire thrillers.

Albion opened Class A2 playoff action with a 5-2 win over Maryvale. The Purple Eagles then nipped Cheektowaga 3-2 in eight innings before besting Springville 8-3 for the A2 title.

Albion then advanced to the state playoffs by nipping former long-time N-O foe Starpoint 2-1 on solo home runs by Warne and Barleben who also went the distance on the mound.

“The team really seemed to jell and we played our best ball in the sectionals, especially defensively,” said Blanchard. “With the exception of the seventh inning against Sutherland we definitely played our set defense in the sectionals. And Connor was lights out for us on the mound pitching three sectional wins.”

The sectional title was the fourth in the last five years for the Purple Eagles.

“These kids were focused. They just wanted to keep it going,” said Blanchard. “It was a very good season and I’m very proud of the boys. They worked very hard. We met our goals and then some.”