Back in his high school playing days at California lefty Zach Jeney was regarded as one of the most dominant pitchers in WPIAL history.
Jeney began his baseball path at an early age.
“I believe I started when I was five years old,” Jeney said. “I was a little different from kids today, I never played the game off of a tee. I played Little League and Teener League.
When Jeney reached high school he made an immediate impact with the Trojans.
“Going into high school I was very familiar with the game and I had played at some different levels,” Jeney said. “Once I got to high school I was able to learn a lot from the coaching staff and they kind of refined me enough to be able to compete at that level at such a young age.”
Jeney not only competed, he became a star and posted a four-year record with the Trojans of 32-8 and notched 466 strikeouts.
“It was a pile of strikeouts,” the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jeney said. “I never thought of myself as a strikeout pitcher. In high school it was a little different, I thought I was able to over-power some people.
“When I went to college I noticed the same thing. My velocity was a little above average in high school, but when I went to college my velocity was really average at about 88 or 89 miles per hour. A couple things that really helped, my fastball had good movement and with my delivery I had the ability to hide the ball for a long time. A hitter wasn’t able to see the ball until it actually came out of my hand. My breaking ball was an out pitch for me. I had a pretty solid curve ball and it was a 12–6 curve ball.”
California was a baseball power at the time, for a period of over a decade under coach Don Hartman the Trojans were in regular contention for section and WPIAL titles. During Jeney’s four seasons with the Trojans they reached the WPIAL semifinals in 2004 and 2005. The captured the WPIAL championship in 2006 and were WPIAL runner-up in 2007.
“There’s a couple unique things about that era,” Jeney opined. “One, the whole group, I’m still in contact with many of the people that were on both sides of that era, that were on the front end before I even got there and were on the back end after I left. It’s kind of a close-knit group.
“There is one common denominator to the whole thing and that is coach Don Hartman.”
During Jeney’s era the Trojans with a little luck could have possibly won four straight WPIAL crowns.
“The first two years that we were in the semis it was a break here or there,” Jeney recalled. “We were right there.”
California broke through in 2006 and beat Geibel Catholic 5-4 to win the WPIAL Class A championship. Jeney was a big part of the win on the mound and with the bat. Jeney smacked a home run off Geibel’s Jeff Baluch to win the championship for the Trojans.
“I was recently at a gathering with some folks who were on that team,” Jeney said. “Also some folks that we had met after the fact ... that game was brought up, and I kind of take a humble approach, I’m more of what am I doing today and not what I did then. They were all on me because I had never told some of them about that game.
“At the time it was definitely a great experience and the people that I was able to share that moment with were great teammates and I can’t say enough about that team.”
When Jeney wasn’t pitching for the Trojans he played first base. He is still ranked as one of the top hitters in California history with a career batting average of .415 and 10 career home runs.
California had a chance to win back-to-back championships, but lost to Springdale in the WPIAL title game in 2007 5-2. It was one of the few times that Jeney didn’t deliver on the mound.
“Some days you are the bug and some days you are the windshield,” Jeney said. “Looking back you can go on a run of 10 or 12 games with great success and then one day you come out and it just doesn’t work.”
Jeney took home a lot of hardware from his high school career.
He earned WPIAL all-star honors, was named as Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Valley Independent “Player of the Year” and also received the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “Diamond Dozen” honor.
Jeney also refined his baseball talent on the sandlots of Fayette County.
“I played a few years in the Fayette County League with the Carmichaels Copperheads and Blue Mountain and Elite Oil Field Services” Jeney said. “We had a couple of different sponsors that we changed our name with. I can’t remember how many championships we won. I want to say it was four or five. We had a very good team. I believe I started playing after my freshman year of high school. I was pretty young. In the County League a lot of the guys had seen a lot and been a lot of places and played a lot of baseball.
“I was able to learn a lot from those guys, not only baseball things, but life lessons. Jeff Thompson was a big mentor of mine. It was fun because he was near 40 years old and catching me and I was like 15 or 16 at the time. There was a definite age gap there, but I learned a lot from him.”
Jeney also had the benefit of playing on some very good travel baseball teams.
“I played with Gene Franks IV and Joe Leonard on the SW PA Bulldogs out of Scottdale,” Jeney said “That was a team comprised of mostly local kids in the Westmoreland and Fayette County area. Joe’s father, John Leonard, coached that team.
“There was a plethora of great athletes on that team. Playing with a team like that let’s you know where you stood as a player. Playing against all this competition, to this day there is not a game that I watch on television that I don’t see somebody that I’ve either played against, played with or know from playing that’s not playing on a major league field right now.”
Jeney also played for the Allegheny Pirates.
When he graduated Jeney wound up going to Louisburg Junior College in North Carolina. He went there because he eventually hoped to transfer to East Carolina. The recruiting process had come down to Louisburg and Slippery Rock.
At Louisburg he compiled 4-1 record with a 5.27 ERA in National Junior College Athletic Association Division I competition in 2008 and helped lead Hurricanes to 41-14 final record. When things fell through as far as transferring to East Carolina he transferred to Slippery Rock.
“At Slippery Rock I had some shoulder issues and had a torn labrum,” Jeney recalled. “I got it straightened out, but the shoulder was always an issue after that. I could give it 100 percent for a start, but to do anything in between it took a toll on me. My recovery time was lengthened by that injury.”
At The Rock Jeney had a career record of 12-9 with a 3.40 ERA. In 2011 he tossed a no-hitter against Lock Haven and he was named honorable mention All-Atlantic Region performer by the NCBWA and earned Second Team All-PSAC-West honors.
In 2012 Jeney was National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-Region honorable mention and second team All PSAC Western Division.
“I had a great time at Slippery Rock,” Jeney said. “I met some great people and coach Jeff Messer and his staff were great. I never regretted going to Slippery Rock.”
Jeney had a couple of feelers to go into professional baseball, but passed on the opportunity.
“I had a couple independent teams interested,” Jeney said. “At that point I was ready to hang it up and I haven’t touched a ball since.”
Armed with a degree in safety management, Jeney worked four years in Charlotte, N.C., and with that he traveled a good bit. Recently he took a job with Columbia Gas and moved back to Pennsylvania.
Jeney, 30, is single and resides in California, Pa. and spends a great deal of time fishing.
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.