Mark Saghy is a professional communicator. He works in Southpointe for Crown Castle, the nation’s largest provider of communications infrastructure, connecting people and businesses to essential data, technology and wireless service.

During off hours, Saghy is a unifier. As a manager, he brings staunch school rivals together and fashions them into friends who also dominate on the diamond.

Since he created the Western Pennsylvania Elite Baseball League in 2006, Saghy has managed the Steel City Wildcats. One of the region’s most successful AAU clubs is a compilation of the finest talent in the 18-and-under division.

While the current roster boasts standouts including Pine-Richland’s Wes Byrd, Hopewell’s Roman Gill, Allderdice’s Andrew Napoleon and McGuffey’s Luke Wagner, the majority of the players hail from the South Hills and Washington County.

Tanner Donati and Jack Smith represent Saghy’s alma mater, Mt. Lebanon. Mateo Cepullio, Brandon Likokareas, Josh Brufsky and brothers, Jake and Andrew Casey, live in Upper St. Clair, where Saghy now resides.

John and Eric Chalus are from Bethel Park.

Sam Miller is from Peters Township and Nolan Lutz is from South Fayette.

Nick Popielarczyk, Tyler Greenleaf and Niko Marinacci are from Canon-McMillan.

“Unlike when I played, the word rivalry doesn’t take on the same meaning anymore. It’s nothing like when I played 100 years ago,” said Saghy, who graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 1984.

“It’s still a spirited competition,” he added. “Before the game starts, you see the kids from St. Clair or Lebo, Bethel or Peters talking to each other. They are as close as the kids they go to class with.

“So it’s fun to see when the kids cross over in the summer. These guys have played against each other. Now they are on the same team and have developed friendships. Those are lasting relationships. That kind of hybrid team is fun.”

Popielarczyk, whose Big Macs lost the section title to Bethel Park during his sophomore season of high school baseball but rebounded to win the PIAA championship, agreed.

Canon-McMillan’s state championship in 2018 remains the highlight of Popielarczyk’s scholastic career.

“For us, the biggest rival is Bethel,” he said. “Every year, it’s the battle to get back at them. So the juices flow a little bit more when we play Bethel.”

Today, Popielarczyk and Eric Chalus are both members of the the Wildcats’ pitching staff.

“I think that is what’s nice about our team,” Popielarczyk said. “When spring comes, we are all rivals. High school versus high school. Once summer ball comes, we are all a bunch of friends just playing again. We can then take that summer ball experience into the next spring season and make it even more competitive going against the guys that you are playing with in the summer.”

For Popielarczyk, there are no more high school seasons. He plans to play baseball at Ashland University.

Popielarczyk didn’t have a lot of options this spring. Because COVID-19 canceled the season, he did not get the opportunity to increase his playing time after seeing limited action as a sophomore and junior.

“It was tough to lose the spring season,” Popielarczyk said. “This year was going to be the year that I finally started. It hurt a little bit knowing I put in all that work and we weren’t going to have a season.”

Now baseball is back.

Popielarczyk said he is “pretty excited” about being on the diamond. During the pandemic, he said he missed the competition and his friends the most.

“Getting out there with eight other guys behind you and just competing. Having that adrenaline rush going and giving all you can. That’s what I like best,” said Popielarczyk, who is batting .333 for the Wildcats with five RBI and two doubles.

“The friendships,” he added. “The connections you make through baseball. I didn’t know most of these guys going into my freshman and sophomore year, but now I know people from all over the place just because of this team and playing other teams.”

Miller, a rising junior, has had his world widened beyond Washington County because of playing for the Wildcats.

“I am really happy to be back on a baseball field again. To be able to face live pitching and having the whole baseball atmosphere,” he said. “It was a bummer having missed the spring, but I think I’ll be able to get back into it and be able to have fun again.”

Miller has played for the Wildcats for two years. He hopes to parlay that experience into a scholarship to college.

“When there is better competition to play with, and play against, I get better at everything,” said Miller, who is batting .471 with six runs and four RBI.

“It’s fun playing with this team and these players because we are like one big happy family and we are all a bunch of guys having fun. We love to play the game.”

Saghy played baseball at Duquesne University. He said he maintains his passion for the game by managing.

“This is my escape,” he said. “Some people like to golf. Some fish. I like to go to the baseball field. I love coaching the kids and seeing their development.”

Saghy and his coaching staff of Jim Rider, Joe DelSardo, Craig Piechnick and Robbie Saghy hone more than the skills required to bat, field and pitch.

“To be successful in this game requires mental preparation. You have to have a short memory and move forward,” he said.

Players also must advance beyond dimension. Saghy said the game is not about size and added it’s easy for him to say because he stands at 6-3.

“But it’s true,” he said. “When you think about kids who really want to play at a higher level like basketball or football, they have to be a certain size. There are exceptions to the rule but that is the norm. In baseball, it doesn’t matter if you are 5-5 or 6-5. You can still work at it and play and not have the stereotype against you to size.”

Almanac Sports Editor

An award-winning journalist, Eleanor Bailey has been employed by Observer Publishing Company since 1982. She is the sports editor at The Almanac and a contributor for the Observer-Reporter.

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