The Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League (JCBL) will open its season on Tuesday with the city in possession of a prestigious title: Defending champion of the AAABA Tournament.

Martella’s Pharmacy gave the City of Johnstown its first champion in the August event via an historic run through the JCBL regular season, playoffs and a perfect 6-0 mark in the AAABA Tournament.

Johnstown had hosted 72 of 74 AAABA Tournaments, including last year. This championship was a long time coming.

This week, five teams, including the defending champs, will begin the JCBL season with the goal of reaching the 75th anniversary AAABA Tournament and giving the host city back-to-back champions.

“We’re just going to have to follow last year’s formula in respect to the regular season, coming to the ballpark every day and trying to get better,” said Martella’s Pharmacy manager Jesse Cooper. “That’s what a summer league is for, to make players better to the point where their college coaches will see the improvement.

“If we can get those guys on board right away to get the ball rolling from practice No. 1 to see what Martella’s Pharmacy baseball means to everyone in the city, I think we’ll have a lot of success.”

Martella’s will begin play in the now five-team JCBL at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday against Smith Transport, a new addition to the league. That contest will be the first half of a Sargent’s Stadium at the Point doubleheader.

Ophthalmic Associates will play Smith Transport at 7:45 p.m. at the Point.

Also on Tuesday, Laurel Auto Group will play Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors at 7:45 p.m. at Roxbury Park. Each team will play 28 regular-season games.

“We’re looking forward to a very competitive season,” JCBL Commissioner Tony Crisafulli said. “We’re hoping we can bring home back-to-back tournament championships.”

Martella’s finished 24-3 to take the 2018 regular-season crown. The Pharmacy went 6-1 in winning two playoff series and then rolled through the AAABA Tournament with a perfect record, including a 3-2 win over New Orleans in the title game.

Also returning will be 2018 league runner-up Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors, a team that played in the past three AAABA Tournaments as Johnstown-2 and advanced to the title game in 2016 and 2017.

Third-place Laurel Auto Group and fourth-place Ophthalmic Associates also are back.

Smith Transport joined the league during the offseason.

“It’s nice having a fifth team,” Crisafulli said. “It gives us added competition.”

Martella’s Pharmacy

General Manager Chris Pfeil and Cooper list 28 players on the roster, though Cooper said several experienced players from the championship team most likely won’t play this summer.

He said Boston Bradley and George Coyle each are out with injuries and other players won’t be on the field at the outset of the season though they eventually might join the active roster before the league deadline in July.

Last year’s JCBL Most Valuable Player Omar Ward is back after winning the 2018 batting title. Joel Colledge, named the top rookie pitcher last season, is another key returnee as well as all-JCBL players Jonny Kutchman, Andrew Walker and Ryan Shawley.

Among the newcomers will be some of the area’s top high school standouts Adam Cecere, Devin Foster, Tyler Mulhollen, Matt Mosholder and Troy Emert.

“We have a good mix of new guys, young guys, and veterans coming back who played a lot last year and guys who might have been role players last year,” Cooper said. “I have high hopes for what we have coming in with this year’s team.”

Players such as T.J. Adams and Brady Walker, two heroes on the mound in the title-game victory, remain on the roster, though Cooper said they, as well as last year’s Pete Vuckovich Award winner Braxton Roxby, aren’t likely to play early in the season.

Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors

Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors is established as a top contender in the league and a proven AAABA Tournament team.

Manager Dave Sheriff and GM-coach Tayler Sheriff have returnees such as 2018 Ken Horoho Award Rookie of the Year Corey Fogle, all-JCBL picks Jason Beranek and Ben Vicini mixed in with top newcomers Ben Visnesky, Vincenzo Rauso and Nick DiAndreth.

“I think we have a good group, a versatile group, which is something that we might have lacked in the past,” Tayler Sheriff said. “We’ve had a couple years where we’ve been mostly speed and contact or years where we were power. This year we have a good mix. Last year we were a boom-or-bust offense and we didn’t steal many bases.

“This year we have guys who can get on base and guys who can drive in runs.”

Paul Carpenter went 14-13 during the 2018 regular season and won the semifinal playoff series against Laurel Auto Group before falling to Martella’s Pharmacy in four games in the JCBL championship series.

“I think we can be a very good defensive club,” Tayler Sheriff said. “The big thing now is pitching and depth on the mound. We’re going to be looking for some young guys to really step up for us. The key is can the younger guys step up on the mound and give us some quality innings.”

Laurel Auto Group

Laurel Auto Group has a new manager in Joe Perez, who also is coach of the successful Chestnut Ridge High School team and a former professional player from Bronx, New York.

“I’m excited to coach with the LAG team,” said Perez, who was an outfielder drafted by the Cleveland Indians and spent five seasons in the minors from 1989 through 1996. “I’m eager to get in there and coach at a little bit higher level. I’m going to give my players 110 percent and we’re going to play the game the right way.”

Perez takes over a team that finished 12-14 and in third place last regular season. Laurel Auto fell to Paul Carpenter in the first round of the playoffs.

Laurel Auto Group returns all-JCBL players Jake Swank and Nick Laganese as well as veterans Zach Wiggins and Cole Shaffer.

Top newcomers include some names familiar to local high school fans in Jeremy Layton, Ty-Rique Rozier, Chris Miller and Logan Kasper.

“I’m very eager to start with the AAABA. I’ve heard a lot of good things,” Perez said. “It’s the 75th year. There are a lot of great sponsors, great teams and great people that are involved in it. The players. A great field. It’s going to be fun.

“The competitive juices flow out of a lot of us. At the end of the day we’re all teams and we’re trying to win. We’re trying to get to the postseason and to that tournament. It’s all hands on deck.”

Ophthalmic Associates

Manager Ken Ashbrook’s team is hoping to stay healthy this season after winning only three games during an injury-plagued 2018 schedule. Ophthalmic lost in three games to Martella’s in the first round of the playoffs.

“As it is every year, pitching is the key to a successful season,” Ashbrook said. “Last year the injury bug hit us hard. We lost our No. 1 pitcher (Will Seymour) in the fourth inning of the first game. Then Luke Mento throws a no-hitter and injured his knee the next day.

“We finished the season with nine healthy guys out of 22 players.”

Ophthalmic Associates returns Robby Bambino, Mento, Luke Dividock, Tyler Bodenschatz and Isaac Wurm. Top newcomers are Joe Hudak, Jake Shope, Corey Cavalier and Erik Napolitano.

“This offseason I tried to load up on pitchers,” Ashbrook said. “With the addition of Jake Shope and Corey Cavalier in the infield and Chasen Claus behind the dish, we look to have a solid infield that has been working really well together in practice.

“We have 15 pitchers rostered for this season,” he said. “Gavin Grimaldi, Luke Dividock and Mento return to the bump. With the addition of Nolan Walters, Ryan Shirley, Gavin Campbell, Alex Arone and Lance Westover, we should have enough arms to get through seven innings every day.”

Smith Transport

The newest team in the league also is the youngest.

Smith Transport is comprised mostly of recent high school standouts from the region, with 16 players on the roster listed at 18 years old and three listed at 17.

Jason Ozog is the lone 20-year-old on the roster and Brian Bernard is 19.

“We built a young team so we could keep a nucleus of good local players together and build off of that from this year,” Smith Transport GM Ray Peel said. 

“We’ll be competitive. We’ll just lack the experience of playing at that level for the first year. For the years to come, we have a good group to build on.

“Our idea was to try to work the local boys into this team.”

Smith Transport manager Ian Stiffler was a AAABA League player with the former Delweld franchise and a pick-up on the 2012 Martella’s Pharmacy AAABA Tournament team.

The Atlanta Braves selected Stiffler in the seventh round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft and he played nearly three years in the minors in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues at the Rookie level. An injury ended his career as a right-handed pitcher.

“We’re young. I’m looking forward to seeing what the guys can do against older guys,” Stiffler said. “Since we’re young, pretty athletic and with some decent speed, I think we’ll be aggressive on the diamond.

“I know we’re new. I told the kids, ‘Control what you can control. Effort is something you can control.’ If we have 100 percent effort every game, we can make a decent run and possibly earn a playoff berth.”

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.

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