Niles baseball products ready for next step

Baseball wasn’t really on the mind of Jaret Johnson when he decided to go to Westminster University.

The former Niles baseball standout was headed to the nearby western Pennsylvania school because it had a good pre-med program, and that was the field he wanted to pursue. While human anatomy and physiology were on the forefront of Johnson’s mind, he couldn’t help but think about baseball.

“I didn’t know I was going to play baseball,” Johnson said. “I came to Westminster because I knew they had a really good pre-med program, and that’s the kind of direction I wanted to go originally. I knew one of the coaches, so I just called him up and asked if I could play, and he said yeah.”

Johnson became a starter as a true freshman back in 2017 and is now one of the Titans’ best players. His high school upbringing had a lot to do with that.

Johnson is one of six former Niles players currently competing at the collegiate level. He joins Tyler Srbinovich (Waynesburg), Damion Coleman (Shawnee State), Marco DeFalco (YSU), Nick Guarnieri (Thiel) and Corbin Foy (Mercyhurst).

Johnson, now a senior for the Titans, whose season is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, has been one of the team’s best players the last two years. As a junior, he was the only player to start all 36 games, led Westminster with 45 hits and was second on the team with 26 RBIs. He hit .338 overall.

He gives his former Niles head coaches, both Mike and TC Guarnieri, much of the credit for his quick transition to NCAA baseball.

“That has a lot to do with coach TC, coach Mike and (Tommy) Otto, and their father, Al Guarnieri, over there in Niles,” Johnson said. “Those guys put in a lot of time and effort to help develop Niles players as hitters as well as just being great men. Developing them to be great people, not just great baseball players.”

The process starts with baseball.

The Red Dragons are one of the area’s winningest programs, claiming All-American Conference White Tier titles in 2016, ’17 and ’18. TC and Mike Guarnieri have swapped head coaching duties a handful of times since taking over the program in 1997, but the winning and development hasn’t changed.

From college freshmen like Foy and Nick Guarnieri to NCAA vets like Johnson, Niles players leave the program ready for what’s next.

“When people see the programs at Niles, they run to baseball,” said Srbinovich, a starter at Waynesburg. “Year-in and year-out, they’re competitive and they’re making it through the tournament. It just comes back to Mike and TC. They’re just hard-nosed, old-school guys. There’s no (messing around) at practice.

“When you’re there, you’re there. It’s all business. They’re going to put their best guys out there regardless of who you are, so earning a spot means that you really did something to show for it. That just translates over into the season and onto the next level.”

Srbinovich knows well.

A junior for the Yellow Jackets, the shortstop batted .309 last year, starting 22 of 26 games, with four doubles, a home run and 18 RBIs. He also notched three saves as a pitcher. He was equally tough as a freshman, with a .284 batting average and a 3.55 ERA in 25 2/3 innings.

Coleman is a junior at Shawnee State (NAIA). He had six hits in 26 at-bats (.231) with two doubles, a homer and six RBIs after playing in nine of the team’s 20 games before the season was cut short.

DeFalco was thrown into the fire as a true freshman with the Penguins, pitching 38.2 innings last year. Nick Guarnieri and Foy are just getting their careers started, but both saw time as true freshmen before the season was postponed.

With all of their teams not playing, the group of friends, most of whom are in town, are considering putting together a sandlot game to stay sharp.

“(Srbinovich) called me the other day,” Johnson said. “There are some other guys, who, with this virus going around and the season suspended, want to get out and play ball still. We’re trying to figure out if we could get half our team or whatever and just go play on a random field somewhere.”

Expect Wilder Field and the Guarnieri brothers, both Niles graduates, to have some visitors in the near future. Being there for players in times of need is part of the development.

“(They’re) going to continue to develop great athletes out of Niles into great men,” Johnson said. “That’s the key. It’s not just being a great baseball player but being a great person in general. That’s what they do over there in Niles.”