SEWICKLEY — At this point in the 2022 season in WPIAL baseball, it’s very rare that a team has one player hitting over .600 at the plate, let alone two. Yet that’s exactly what the red-hot Sewickley Academy Panthers’ baseball team has at its disposal this spring with junior Adin Zorn and sophomore Jordan Smith.
Zorn, a Penn State commit, is hitting .676 — up from .571 a year ago — along with a .733 on-base percentage and a 1.162 slugging percentage on the year, increasing his numbers across the board after a dominant sophomore season that put the Panthers’ star on the WPIAL map. Not to be outdone, Smith is enjoying a massive breakout sophomore season for the Panthers, hitting .600 on the year with a .689 on-base percentage and a .628 slugging percentage.
The two standouts — along with junior Nicholas Straka (.412 batting average, 14 runs batted in) – have the Panthers eyeing a WPIAL Class 1A championship under coaches Andrew Petruska and Anthony Garofalo.
‘Not trying to do too much’
As a Penn State commit ahead of his junior season, all eyes have been on Zorn the last two years. Even with all the pressure on him externally, Zorn — to his credit – has stayed within himself as a hitter, leading to a career year through 11 games for the Panthers.
Fresh off of a dominant sophomore season for the black and red, Zorn has one-upped his game with the bat in his hands, staying within himself with a sound approach without trying to do too much, all while seeing a majority of off-speed and breaking ball pitches as teams have tried to stay away from feeding one of the top hitters in the WPIAL fastballs.
For young hitters, staying patient and learning to hit off-speed and breaking ball pitches at a high clip can be rather difficult, leading to some bad habits in the box. Zorn has used the change in philosophy from opposing pitchers to make himself that much more of a complete hitter in the box, which will only benefit him at the next level.
“It’s just my approach, just going up there not trying to do too much,” Zorn said. “Staying within myself, hitting whatever the pitcher gives me, whether that be off-speed, fastballs, you know, just really staying within my own approach, reading off of what the pitcher does, and attacking.
“It’s teaching me how to hit in different situations, different counts,” Zorn added. “It’s definitely preparing me for the next level where I may see that stuff earlier in counts. I think seeing this now is making me a better hitter in general, and really rounding me out as a hitter. I definitely feel like I have the fastball down, but just seeing more and more off-speed, I’ve just become a better hitter in general.”
Even while seeing a healthy dose of changeups, curveballs and sliders throughout his junior season, Zorn has been able to still hit for power, recording 10 doubles, a triple and two home runs on the year while driving in 14 runs in the three-hole for the Panthers. Add in the fact that he has more walks (7) than strikeouts (2) on the year, it makes it all that much more impressive what the junior standout is doing at the plate under Petruska and Garofalo.
“His knowledge for the game is just getting even better,” Garofalo said. “His IQ, his understanding of the strike zone…everything. Against Eden Christian, they were starting to pitch him backwards, tripling up on curveballs. Just talking with me and discussing how he was seeing so many curveballs, he was able to sit back in his next at-bat and rip a curveball the other way for a double.
“He adjusts,” Garofalo added. “His IQ continues to grow, his plate discipline continues to grow. He batted over five hundred last year and he’s having an even better year this year, which is just incredible.”
Slight change to approach, swing path leads to Smith’s breakout
As a freshman in 2021, Smith was known more for his achievements on the mound, rather than at the plate.
Starting the Panthers’ WPIAL playoff loss against West Greene, the future appeared rather bright for Smith as the leader of the staff under Petruska and Garofalo.
However, Smith has taken a monumental step forward with the bat in his hands this season, seeing his numbers jump from a respectable .250/.317/.277 slash line in 2021 to his current .600/.689/.628 this season with 16 RBIs in 45 plate appearances as a rising sophomore.
Admittedly, Smith was trying to do too much as a freshman, often trying to muscle everything up, which led to popups and a frustrating season overall. A ton of work in the offseason alongside Zorn with the Pittsburgh Diamond Dawgs — one of the premier travel baseball organizations in Western Pennsylvania — led to a change in his overall bat path and a calming approach at the plate, leading to his breakout season as a hitter.
“It’s meant everything to me this year,” Smith said. “Last year, I was in a major slump, just popping everything up. But this year, I put in a ton of work, got my bat path right and saw a lot of competition. This year I’m just feeling really good about myself and my approach at the plate.
“Last year, I couldn’t really choose to do one thing, I kept trying different things,” Smith said. “But last summer, one of my coach’s told me to do one thing and it stuck, and I’ve kept hitting the ball the way I want to hit the ball, and it’s just carried over.”
Much like Zorn has taken a step forward as a hitter in terms of zone understanding, looking for his pitch and doing damage, so too has Smith, who has really made a conscious effort to hit the opposite way, leading to him hitting the ball where it’s pitched, unlocking his potential at the plate, according to Garofalo.
“He’s got so much experience already only being a sophomore. He’s really worked on going the opposite way this year,” Garofalo said. “Last year, he tried to muscle up anything he could to hit the ball hard. Sometimes, that ends in pop flies and lazy fly balls. But this year, he’s really zoned in hitting the ball wherever it’s pitched.
“He’s letting the ball take his swing to wherever it’s going.”
Panthers eyeing a WPIAL 1A title
With Zorn and Smith swinging hot sticks at the plate down the stretch, the Panthers — in the middle of a significant surge in Section 3-1A — are eyeing a deep run into the playoffs. Though Sewickley Academy hasn’t quite figured out Eden Christian to this point, having lost to the Warriors Monday and Tuesday by scores of 3-1 and 7-1, the Panthers are right in the midst of things in 1A.
Pitching has been an issue overall for the Panthers as Smith and freshman Nolan Donnelly have struggled in a combined nine outings, but senior Sajen Schuchert and junior Bennett Spencer have picked up the slack, going a combined 4-1 on the year in eight appearances with a combined 3.60 ERA in 36 innings of work.
Just three games remain on the schedule as the Panthers are slated to take on OLSH, Avonworth and New Brighton to close out the regular season before postseason play begins. Having already surpassed their win total from a year ago, the Panthers believe an added year of experience and some high-end talent could lead them to new heights on the diamond.
“Experience is huge,” Zorn said. “Last year was a lot of our, technically, freshman year. Experience and maturity is huge. We’ve been here once and done this already, so that’s important for us. We learned how to go through a season. We know what we can expect, and we know our game. We’re going to carry that into the playoffs and chase our goal of a championship.”