Charlie Smetana and Kingston Krotec were just a couple of middle schoolers as they watched the Hopewell Vikings advance through the WPIAL playoffs in 2021.
They’d watch the Vikings advance all the way to the PIAA quarterfinals. But at that time, it was more so about what happened after the games ended. It was about heading home to Smetana’s backyard — a makeshift baseball diamond.
Smetana and Krotec would reenact everything. They’d even throw bullpen sessions.
So, it only makes sense that Smetana and Krotec played major roles in Hopewell’s 3-0 win over Northern Lebanon in the first round of the PIAA 4A playoffs. Krotec put together a gem of a performance, allowing just four hits in Hopewell’s first shutout of the season, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Smetana behind the plate.
“Having Juice — we call him Juice — having Juice behind the plate was great,” Krotec said about Smetana. “He threw out those three runners, which kept the pitch count down and kept me in the game.”
Juice? It’s an inside joke. But it’s also something that doesn’t need to be explained to understand who he is as a person — and a baseball player.
“I’ve had the connection with him since we were eight years old, and just knowing his ability behind the plate and just being able to locate the pitches for him to be able to gun the runner, it’s just outstanding,” Krotec said.
Smetana didn’t crush a home run to dead center or rack up five hits, but he was the steadying presence behind the plate for Krotec all game long. And he certainly gunned down runners. Northern Lebanon tried to steal second three times. Smetana caught it all three times.
It was truly a performance — from both Krotec and Smetana — that was years in the making.
“It means a lot,” Smetana said about combining with Krotec for the win. “We’ve been together since we were seven, playing baseball at a high level. And we’ve always been under the spotlight in big games.”
The first time that the two teamed up was years ago. Way back when the two starred in the Hopewell All-Star tournament as seven-year-olds, leading the squad to a win. It was a sign of things to come both on and off the diamond.
“He’s one of my closest friends, we spend a lot of time together on and off the field,” Smetana said.
“He means everything,” Krotec said. “I hang out with him every weekend, just enjoy our time together.”
They’ve put a lot of work in over the summers, hitting together, playing catch together and building a rapport on and off the field. That chemistry, which can be rare for a couple of first-year freshmen, has already paid off. It’s not always the case that a couple of freshmen play important roles on the varsity squad.
It certainly wasn’t always the case this season either as Smetana didn’t start to see his playing time until the end of the season. But Krotec’s life is so much easier now that Smetana is playing with him.
Smetana and Krotec may be freshmen, with their entire varsity careers ahead of them, but they’re not thinking about what could be right now. They’re already fixated on the present: what they can do right now.
Cathedral Prep is up next on the schedule, and with ace Landon Fox on the mound, Krotec said that Hopewell should be able to handle business against a very, very good Ramblers’ squad. “We’re just looking forward to having fun,” Krotec said. “We got one, now let’s add on.” It’s about continuing to play like underdogs, as Hopewell has done all postseason.
But, as Smetana said, the goal — as always — is to win. Focus on the next game, win it and do the same all over again. The 14th-seed Vikings weren’t expected to make it as far as they have, which plays into that underdog mentality, but the underdogs want to keep winning and winning and winning.
The energy in the dugout, which has been lively throughout the playoff run to a WPIAL title over Greater Latrobe on May 30, is paramount. Krotec said if Hopewell can continue to keep that energy, put balls in play and pitch like they have, it will lead to further success.
Smetana himself expected this success, even if the outside voices didn’t, but it still doesn’t quite feel real to be here in the moment. Maybe not this soon. But that doesn’t change his self-imposed expectations. He wants to win a PIAA championship every season, but of course, if he can just help lead the Vikings to one, that’s a success.
Krotec shares the same sentiment, but he also feels like a “successful” season is about making sure that he — as well as Smetana — leaves everything out on the field each and every game.
“Ending the season without having any regrets, knowing that if we do lose, it wasn’t a bad loss,” Krotec said.
Hopewell will take on Cathedral Prep on Thursday, June 8 in the PIAA quarterfinals. It will be the toughest test of the season for the Vikings, but both Smetana and Krotec are ready to help in any and every capacity.
The pair may have watched from the bleachers as Hopewell lost in the 2021 PIAA quarterfinals, but they’ll have a chance to impact the 2023 PIAA quarterfinals directly this time around.