WCAC Tournament Preview: Panthers, Knights to Renew Rivalry in Quarterfinals

May 2 - One of the area’s best rivalries will highlight the quarterfinal round when Paul VI Catholic travels to Bishop O’Connell on Saturday, and Bishop Ireton hopes to play spoiler as the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference begins play today.

The area’s top private school league received a face lift this year, with the addition of The Heights (MD) giving the WCAC a 10th team. As a result, two five-team divisions were created and the conference’s postseason tournament now includes two play-in games to the quarterfinal round. As has been the case for the past decade, best-of-three semifinal and championship rounds will follow.

Bishop Ireton coach Mike Olerta’s club faces a stiff challenge as it attempts to make a Cinderella run in his third season at the helm. The No. 9 seed Cardinals travel to No. 8 seed St. Mary’s Ryken today, with the winner drawing top-seeded St. John’s (D.C.), the metro area’s No. 1-ranked team by The Washington Post, in Saturday’s semifinals.

Both D.C. teams, St. John’s and Gonzaga - which will travel to DeMatha Catholic (MD) in Saturday’s quarterfinals - feature a number of players that reside in Northern Virginia. Most notable are two Cadets freshmen who have committed to Division I programs in shortstop James Triantos (North Carolina) and right-hander Jack O’Connor (Virginia) as well as Purple Eagles junior right-hander Garrett Newsome (William & Mary).

Olerta is expected to give the ball to senior left-hander Ian Leon, who will pitch at Division III College of Wooster in Ohio next year. To help his team prepare, the coach invited members of Ireton’s 2008 team that upset a nationally-ranked Paul VI team to advance to the WCAC final before falling to DeMatha Catholic. The Cardinals also made a run to the conference final the following spring.

“They were the first one’s to make that run to a championship game under [former coach Mike] Gallagher,” Olerta said. “I had them talk to the guys and kind of tell them what are some of the things that helped them make that run. And a few of them really hammered that, ‘You need to take it one game at a time. You really have to focus on winning the one and not get caught up in it’.

“So I’m hoping that really resonated with our kids, being able to hear it from guys who have been through it.”

On Saturday, No. 4 seed Bishop O’Connell hosts No. 5 seed Paul VI Catholic with a berth in the semifinal round on the line. The Knights are likely to start senior Peter Colevas, with the Panthers expected to hand the ball to senior lefty Nick Ortega, who will pitch at Mary Washington next year.

O’Connell swept both regular season games between the teams for the first time since 2016.

“Paul VI is a good team, as evidenced by going and beating [nationally-ranked] Benedictine the other day,” Knights coach Kyle Padgett said. “We’re certainly not overlooking those guys by any means, and it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year. Hopefully, we play a good game and come out and take care of business.”

O’Connell has improved its win total in each of the past three seasons behind a core led by three Atlantic Coast Conference recruits - senior right-hander Will Pickford (Virginia Tech), junior lefty Jake Berry (Virginia) and junior shortstop and reliever Eddie Eisert (N.C. State). Eisert, a switch-hitting three-year starter, is healthy after a hip injury limited his mobility earlier this spring.

“Eddie’s probably the most-talented guy in our league,” Padgett said. “If he gets hot, he could absolutely carry us for the next month.”

Padgett added that another postseason key for the Knights, who are a lock to earn a bid to the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I state tournament for the first time since 2016 regardless of Saturday’s outcome, could be the play of less-heralded junior catcher Riley O'Donovan. “If Riley picks us up in some big spots, we’re going to be a tough team to beat,” the coach said.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are hot entering the postseason - they won five of their last seven regular season games - a contrast to a rough 1-5 start. They are hoping to avoid their first losing season since 2002 and may need a win on Saturday to qualify for the VISAA Division I state tournament for a 17th consecutive season.

“We’ve got to win more,” Paul VI coach Billy Emerson stated plainly of his team’s state tournament chances. “We’ve played some really tough games against really good teams. I don’t remember a team getting into states with a sub-.500 record, but we can still control our own destiny. We’ll get into states if we do that.”

Tournament Schedule:

Play-In Games (Today):
Game #1: No. 9 Bishop Ireton (6-15, 3-10) at No. 8 St. Mary’s Ryken, MD (8-17, 4-9)
Game #2: No. 10 Heights, MD (8-16, 0-13) at No. 7 Good Counsel, MD (6-15, 5-8)

Quarterfinals (Saturday):
Game #3: Gm #1 Winner at No. 1 St. John’s, D.C. (22-2, 13-0)
Game #4: No. 5 Paul VI Catholic (12-13, 7-6) at No. 4 Bishop O’Connell (14-8, 7-6)
Game #5: Gm #2 Winner at No. 2 Bishop McNamara (20-5, 10-3)
Game #6: No. 6 Gonzaga, D.C. (15-9, 7-6) at No. 3 DeMatha Catholic, MD (15-10, 9-4)

Semifinal Round (Tue-Wed-Thu):
Game #7: Gm #3 Winner at Gm #4 Winner
Game #8: Gm #5 Winner at Gm #6 Winner
Game #9: Gm #4 Winner at Gm #3 Winner
Game #10: Gm #6 Winner at Gm #5 Winner
Game #11: Gm #3 Winner at Gm #4 Winner*
Game #12: Gm #5 Winner at Gm #6 Winner*

Championship Round (Fri-Sat-Sun):
Game #13: Low Seed vs. High Seed at Nationals Youth Academy
Game #14: High Seed vs. Low Seed at Nationals Youth Academy
Game #15: Low Seed vs. High Seed at Nationals Youth Academy*

* if necessary

Photos of Paul VI’s Nick Ortega, left, by Fred Ingham and of Eddie Eisert, right, courtesy of O’Connell Baseball