A few minutes drive east along Fifth Avenue is all that separates two age-old institutions in the Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. Central Catholic High School and the University of Pittsburgh — both part of almost a century of Steel City history — share an extensive list of acclaimed alumni.
While 1979 graduate Dan Marino’s generational fame earned on the football field will dominate Central Catholic athletic lore for through the foreseeable future, there is a new generation of Vikings who chose to stay home and make their mark at Pitt on the baseball diamond.
Sophomore outfielder and pitcher Austyn Winkleblech — “Wink” for short — and senior catcher Joey Pilewski are the anchors of a powerhouse battery on the Central Catholic High School baseball team who both recently revealed their plans to play college baseball together as well.
A senior and three-year player on the Vikings’ varsity team, Pilewski is confident and leads by example, according to Central Catholic alumnus and head baseball coach, as well as former Pitt baseball player, Patrick Walsh. Walsh said when younger players see a senior working as hard as Pilewski does, there’s no excuse for them to not put forth a similar effort.
“This will be [Joey’s] third year with me on the varsity and he’s just an incredibly hard worker,” Walsh said. “He works at his baseball almost day and night. … From his sophomore year to his senior year the transformation of his body will tell you enough. If you’re going to work as hard as him you’ll be in good shape.”
2021 will mark the definite end of his high school baseball career but Pilewski will still leave with a state championship under his belt and a college future on the horizon. His recruitment to Pitt was not long or glamorous, but it ended with a roster spot on a team in the ACC, one of America’s premier college baseball conferences.
Pilewski’s dream had always been to play at Army West Point and the Black Knights had shown some interest after Pilewski’s sophomore year. But when his junior season was derailed after only two scrimmages by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pilewski was unable to get the necessary looks to officially land an Army offer.
Pilewski said he still picked up interest from schools like Bucknell, Lehigh, Slippery Rock and Merceyhurst among others, but few enthused him the way the Black Knights did.
Then Pitt came knocking. Pilewski said the Panthers told him they were looking to pick up another catcher, and reached out with an offer after watching him play at a showcase event. The Pitt coaching staff told Pilewski he was the first player they contacted about the open roster spot, but he had only a few days to accept before they moved on to another prospect.
“For me, it happened pretty fast,” Pilewski said about his recruitment. “Pitt offered me three days before I committed and they gave me two days to decide … They needed another catcher and there were more options than just me. So I’m sure if I didn’t take the offer they were going to move on to someone else.”
The cancelation of the 2020 season — one Pilewski said was “stolen” from what he considered a state championship-contending Vikings team — left many 2021 prospects hung out to dry, according to Walsh. The lack of opportunities for coaches to evaluate players so deep in the recruiting cycle meant that many juniors intent on playing in college had to create their own film and hope that their senior seasons would survive.
Pilewski works on improving his body and his craft everyday and the constant work has yielded great gains on the field. While his offensive skills have a ways to go before they can contend with strong ACC pitching, the defensive skills will translate immediately.
Even though he wasn’t recruited heavily, Pilewski will be able to contribute on an ACC team right away, Walsh said.
“Joey has a big arm, his framing is fantastic,” Walsh said. “I think he would be able to go into an ACC program and catch right away. His hitting — he’s a very good hitter in high school, but going to the ACC that’s what you always worry about.”
Winkleblech is one of Pilewski’s frequent workout partners and that shared time at a self-described “data-based training facility” called Performance Velocity Systems, owned by Pilewski’s father Matt, helped push the two to commit together in close succession.
Winelbelch is a blue-chip prospect. Despite only being a sophomore, the 6-foot tall, 155-pound, switch-hitting outfielder and pitcher boasts loads of potential that national powerhouse teams like Vanderbilt, Stanford, Alabama, Duke and others wanted to get in on early.
He runs a 6.5-second sixty yard dash, making Winkleblech the fastest kid he has ever coached, according to Walsh. For reference, a 6.5 second 60-yard dash time is on par with the likes of the Los Angeles Angels’ superstar outfielder Mike Trout.
Walsh also said that Winkleblech boasts a quick bat with more power than his young fram would suggest, as well as the range and arm to make him an elite defensive outfielder. Walsh put his talent into some simple terms.
“Austyn has some ridiculous skills,” Walsh said.
Pitt was fighting for attention among the sport’s elite programs, but still landed the coveted prospect’s early commitment because of their persistence and because of the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic brought, according to Winkleblech.
“I started talking to Pitt in 2019,” Winkleblech said. “I’ve been talking to them for a while. I was an eighth grader going into freshman year talking to [colleges] already. It took me a while to make my decision. I was young, I didn’t know what I wanted to do … But I guess with all of the COVID stuff going on I just picked Pitt, I guess … Pitt was always there. They were my go-to.”
They’re two wildly different prospects who went through vastly divergent recruiting processes. Winkleblech’s was a storm of tantalizing offers beginning early and ending quickly, while Pilewski had to navigate a pandemic in his final year of school to figure out a plan for after graduation.
Walsh is confident Central Catholic will play a full season this spring. But if the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, the duo of Pilewski and Winkleblech might miss a second consecutive season together. Still, there is a definite return on the horizon.
Even though the reunion won’t happen until 2023, when Winkleblech graduates, it’s a welcome experience Pilewski is looking forward to, even if he didn’t expect it.
“I had options to go places … then Pitt kind of opened my doors,” Pilewski said. “I had no idea I’d be able to go to Pitt to play baseball. It’s like I’m staying home, I’m right next door so my whole family can come see me play.”