Martella’s

Martella’s Pharmacy’s Ty Diehl crosses home in front of Brooklyn Bonnie Rams pitcher Andrew Hernandez after a wild pitch during the fourth inning of their game in the 74th AAABA Tournament on Aug. 7, 2018. 

Defending AAABA Tournament champions.

The title has a nice ring to it, especially in Johnstown as the 75th annual AAABA Tournament is set to begin.

Martella’s Pharmacy will carry the banner as defending champs as the Johnstown entry hosts the night games at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point beginning on Monday. The dramatic 3-2 victory over perennial power New Orleans in the 2018 title game set off a wild on-field celebration, then led to a parade and Central Park rally to commemorate the historic feat.

Manager Jesse Cooper’s current team will keep matters in perspective.

“Nothing can really change with our mind-set. Obviously we’re going to have a target on our back, but we’re used to it,” Cooper said during a Friday practice at the Point. “Being the host team, you’re always going to have that target on your back. Playing in the night game as well.

“We just have to go out there and compete. We have to have the same competitive edge, same mind-set, every pitch and every game.”

Martella’s first baseman Jonny Kutchman will play in his fourth AAABA Tournament. The Richland High School graduate and Waynesburg University player believes the Johnstown team will maintain a level approach.

“I wouldn’t say it changes anything but it’s definitely a good feeling,” Kutchman said of last year’s national crown. 

“It gives us something to defend. We’re looking forward to starting up Monday to try and defend that title.”

Martella’s endured an injury-marred season that also had other players leave due to college commitments. The “next-man-up” approach helped the Pharmacy upset regular-season champion Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors in the Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League playoff championship series, 3-2.

Martella’s won Games 4 and 5 to claim its sixth consecutive league playoff title and make the franchise’s 11th straight AAABA Tournament appearance.

“Facing adversity and overcoming it and overcoming failure, as well, is a big thing,” Cooper said. “When they find themselves able to dig out of a hole and come together as a team, that builds that camaraderie that you need to go into a tournament like this.”

Martella’s will receive a boost with the return of first-year standout Adam Cecere, who missed the second half of the regular season and playoffs while attending summer classes at Wake Forest University, where he will play NCAA Division I baseball under coach Tom Walter, a Johnstown native and AAABA Hall of Famer.

Also back will be Omar Ward, a star on the national championship team who went down with an injury during the third week of the regular season. Ward will play at Seton Hill University after transferring from Division I Canisius.

Cooper said West Virginia University player Phillip Dull, a Chestnut Ridge High graduate, has been cleared after missing several weeks with an injury. The manager said Dull will be evaluated after Sunday’s practice.

“It should be exciting once we all get together in the tournament and see what we can do,” said Somerset’s George Coyle, a Seton Hill player.

Martella’s will rely on Pete Vuckovich Award winner Joel Colledge, a Pitt-Johnstown left-hander from Everett.

Players such as Drew Frear, Jake Ansell, Ray Watt, Devin Foster, Troy Emert, Andrew Pasko, Jack Oberdorf, Matt Mosholder, Tyler Mulhollen and Ty Diehl have played significant roles.

Dylan Gearhart had a strong tournament with Altoona last year and has been productive in a Martella’s uniform.

Pick-up players Luke Dividock (Ophthalmic Associates), Jake Swank (Laurel Auto Group) and Cole Shaffer (Laurel Auto Group) will boost the lineup. Swank was part of the AAABA Tournament championship team as a pick-up a year ago.

“It was definitely a battle this year,” Kutchman said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. The final series was a battle. Coming out on top gives us a lot of momentum.”

Most of the players appreciate the role of defending champions, but they’re focusing on the current pools and brackets.

“It doesn’t make a bunch of a difference. We’re just trying to play baseball and do what we can to win games,” Coyle said.

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.