Johnstown's Laurel Auto Group in 2014

Laurel Autos are geared up

Team learned from last year's tournament

Laurel Auto Group qualified for the national tournament for the first time last year and competed as the Johnstown runner-up entry. Playing in the upper bracket, they outlasted Brooklyn 5-4 and then won a wild 18-16 contest over New York. Their run ended at 2-2 with loses to champion Chicago-Metro and regional rival Altoona. This year, the Laurels had a strong regular season and playoffs in the local Johnstown league, but disappointingly placed runner-up in both to Martella's Pharmacy. Although they will once again have to play as the runner-up Flood City entry, manager Mark Thomchick and his team are excited to be back in the brackets.

"We are absolutely thrilled to be in the tournament again," said manager Mark Thomchick, who will be managing in his second tournament. "The games are always intense and upbeat. This is baseball at its finest, to see college baseball playings--guys that aren't getting paid to play--going out and playing backyard-style baseball. We're looking forward to seeing another great crowd this year down at the Point Stadium."

Title hopes fell short

Laurel Auto spent most of the season battling eventual-champion Martella's Pharmacy for the top spot in the standings. As the season came to a close, the Laurels controlled their own destiny and could have claimed first if they had won their remaining games. However, they dropped a key game to 4th-place Ophthalmic Associates, which opened the door for Martella's Pharmacy. The Pharmacists won the final game of the season on a walk-off hit to claim the regular season title.

The offense came to life in their semi-final series against Paul's Renegades, pounding out 45 hits and scoring 35 runs in only 3 games. They kept cruising with 18 more hits and 16 runs in the first game of the championship series against Martella's Pharmacy. Laurel Auto looked to be in control of Game 2, too, as well.

"[We were leading] 7-4 in the 9th and they found a way to tie it up and win it in 12 innings," recalled Thomchick. "That really deflated us. It was a really mentally challenging game, and we weren't able to bounce back in the series." Martella's tied the series with that win, and then won games 3 and 4 to take the series 3-1.

Lessons learned from last year

Although they finished second again this year, Thomchick believes that his team has been making strides over the past two or three seasons. He confessed that he and his team were surprised by some aspects of the tournament last year, but--having learned from that experience--are looking to make a stronger showing this year.

"The pick-up players I chose last year were more offensive-minded," explained Thomchick. "This year, I think we're gonna have to get more arms and guys to strengthen the bullpen, because if you have one of those long games like we had last year, you can get in trouble [later in the week]."

The game he is speaking of occured at Point Stadium on Tuesday of last year against New York. After jumping to a 9-0 lead in the 5th, Laurel Auto found themselves ahead by only 1 run by the end of the 6th. New York eventually tied the game at 11 after 8, but a 3-run top-of-the-ninth appeared to put Johnstown firmly in front. New York tied the game again and eventually extended the game to 11 innings, where Laurel Auto finally held their lead and won 18-15. Although they won the game, Laurel Auto had to throw 6 different pitchers and struggled to find enough arms in their final two games.

Pitching staff looks strong

With only seven returning players, the character of the Laurel Auto Group team is much different than last year. Whereas the 2014 club used offense to win games, Thomchick believes that this year's squad excels at defense and pitching.

"Tyler Tubbs was our workhouse on the mound," said Thomchick. "He threw a ton of big games and really competed for us." Dylan Pietrantoni won the league's Bill Jenkins Rookie Pitcher of the Year award and finished with a 6-1 record. Matt Douglas also finished at 6-1. Closer Austin Sleek was perfect in relief.

In the outfield, Luke Smeltz and Cory Wheeler have played well for Laurel Auto. At the plate, firstbaseman Zac Heide won the league's Triple Crown with a 0.402 batting average, 7 home runs, and 32 RBIs. Behind the plate, returning catcher Collin Laguzza broke his wrist in June and has not played since. Nico Pecora has taken over duties behind the plate, and Thomchick expects to pick-up another catcher prior to the tournament.

"Our pitching was, I think, one of the big strengths of our team [this year]," said Thomchick. "Our defense was above average all season, and then our hitters started to come on towards the end of the season, so we're disappointed that we didn't win the championship, but I like where we're at right now."

Pick-up announced

On Monday night, Laurel Auto Group announced their four pick-up players as Rick Jones and Dom Farina (Paul's Renegades) and Tyler Black and Matt Hogue (Ophthalmic Associates).


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