Pope John Paul II's James Bleming is thankful that a heartbreaking end to the basketball season was followed by a strong start on the diamond.

"That was a rough way to finish," the senior said of a 59-58 loss to Lower Moreland in a PIAA District 1 Class AAA hoops semifinal playoff. "I needed baseball to get over that. I was practicing the next day."

Sparked by Bleming, a hard-hitting shortstop, the resurgent Golden Panthers are 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pioneer Athletic Conference.

"Our goal is to be in the front of the pack by the end of the week," the 6-foot, 175-pounder said. "The league is pretty wide open this year. I think we can contend for the championship."

From the No. 3 spot in the order, Bleming, who will continue in baseball at Lehigh, is batting a team-best .480 (12 for 25) with 13 runs and seven RBIs. He also has seven stolen bases, five triples, and a double.

"He's been a rock in the middle of our lineup," first-year PJP coach John Duffy said. "We can always rely on him to generate something positive for us."

In Wednesday's 14-3, five-inning win over PAC-10 rival Upper Perkiomen, Bleming tripled twice, scored four runs, and knocked in three runs. "I'm feeling very comfortable at the plate," he said.

Duffy spent the last 2 1/2 years as assistant at La Salle University. Before that, the Royersford resident compiled an 80-14 record in three seasons at Germantown Academy.

"He's made a big difference in our turnaround," said Bleming, who last season batted an area-best .566 with 17 RBIs and 16 runs. "He pays attention to the little details, prepares us for every situation we might face in a game."

Also in the mix for the Golden Panthers, who have rebounded from last year's 5-14 showing, are senior leftfielder Joey Pedorenko, sophomore second baseman Billy Hitman, and senior catcher Sean Williamson. Senior righthander and Widener recruit Josh Lafferty is the pitching ace.

Of Lafferty, who is 3-1 with 20 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings, Bleming said, "He throws strikes, has a hard fastball, and a good breaking pitch to back it up."

Bleming was a quarterback in football until suffering a broken collarbone midway through his junior year. In basketball last season, as a combination guard, he drilled 72 three-pointers in 24 games.

Last fall, instead of returning to the gridiron, Bleming played for the All-Star Baseball Academy. A squad that also included Conestoga brothers Andrew and Steve Born played in tournaments in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Before starting his career at Lehigh, Bleming, of Limerick, plans to play for the Pottstown Spartans in the Perkiomen Valley Twilight League.

Bleming, who plans to major in business, also considered Penn, Penn State, Rider, Mount St. Mary's (Md.).

Back in the Inter-Ac. Mike Hickey, who coached at Malvern Prep for 17 seasons, is the first-year boss at Episcopal Academy.

"This is the most coaching I've done in a really long time," Hickey said after the visiting Churchmen bowed to Haverford School, 4-2, in Tuesday's Inter-Ac League opener. "I love it. I'm really happy."

Hickey, 44, stepped down at Malvern Prep, where he was in charge for 12 years, for personal reasons following the 2009 season. He was an assistant at Temple in 2011-12.

"My goal was to get back into the classroom full-time," said Hickey, a math and science teacher at Episcopal. "When this job opened up, it seemed like it would be a really good fit."

Episcopal's pitching staff is headed by senior righthanders Russell Rhoads, a Penn recruit who took the loss vs. the Fords, and Adam Seibert (Hofstra).

The Churchmen (4-7) went 3-3 on their trip to Fort Pierce, Fla.

Extra bases. Roman Catholic senior righthander Kyle Rogalsi, who has committed to play at Misericordia, is 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings. The Cahillites have been led on offense by junior third baseman Connor McKenna (.438) and senior pitcher-shortstop Joe Myers (.348). Myers will play at Widener. ... Through Tuesday, Neumann-Goretti senior first baseman Josh Ockimey was batting .556 with 10 RBIs, 10 runs, and a .680 on-base percentage. Teammate Pat Roudican, a junior southpaw, was 1-0 with 16 whiffs in 9 1/3 innings. ... Spring-Ford's David Gulati and Cameron Simmons were batting .538 and .500, respectively. ... Central Bucks East senior second baseman and leadoff man Pat Reilly, who is considering Navy, was hitting .545 ... For Owen J. Roberts, senior catcher-first baseman David Clay and junior outfielder-pitcher Jake LeClerc were each batting .500. ... Harriton (6-0) will visit Conestoga (4-1) in a Central League showdown Thursday. The Rams are expected to send either Corey Neel (Widener) or Max Bershad to the hill. Both are senior righthanders. ... Conestoga has been ignited on offense by senior centerfielder Steve Born (.579), junior second baseman Ryne Ogren (.466), senior rightfielder Andrew Born (.461), and senior shortstop Tom Richter (.400). Pioneer junior southaw Brendon Little, a North Carolina commit, is 2-1 with 24 K's in 9 2/3 innings.