By Matt Popchock
Here comes the rain again, as a famous woman once said, not to mention the occasional hail stones. It interrupted the first full week of the 2011 WPIAL regular softball season, and it’s already starting to wreak a bit of havoc on the second.
Nevertheless, it’s time to get excited about the female equivalent of our national pastime, as some exceptional players have returned to the diamond, and a few local teams seem to have a realistic shot at PIAA gold.
Mount Lebanon (Class AAAA) and Chartiers-Houston (Class A) earned it in 2010, while Montour (Class AAA), Valley (Class AA), and Vincentian Academy (Class A) joined the Blue Devils as district champs. The road back for Lebo might be a difficult one, given the general emergence of other Quad-A programs this season, but the others are looking strong again, and the plot thickens with Valley moving up to Class AAA.
Indeed, we can expect to see some pretty exceptional teams back in the hunt again, and we can also expect to see some pretty exceptional players leading the charge. Here are a few things–and people–Mr. High School Sports will look for as the season unfolds:
Section 1 features Latrobe and Connellsville, two of last year’s WPIAL Semifinalists, and Hempfield, which some are pegging as a title favorite in Quad-A. The Wildcats, typically a powerhouse in this sport, barely won the section crown, and it probably won’t be much easier to defend in what could be the best section in the classification. They are staffed by Alexa Larkin, who went 7-3 and struck out 99 during the regular season, and Rebecca Taylor, who fanned 74. Hempfield is also going to lean a lot on pitching with Hope Pherson coming off a 10-6 regular season in which her 123 strikeouts ranked among the top five in Quad-A, and battery-mate Alyssa Bates is back behind the dish after hitting over .400 as a shortstop. Megan Uher had an equally strong regular campaign for Connellsville, going 9-5 with 115 K’s, and the Falcons seem to have good senior leadership, including catcher Tommi Nickelson, who delivered the walk-off single that put her team in the 2010 playoffs.
Defending its first-ever Quad-A district title looks to be a long-shot for Mount Lebanon, which has a great leader and clutch hitter in infielder Tess Apke, but graduated its best pitcher, among other key components of its PIAA championship squad. Peters Township or Baldwin are more likely to come out on top in Section 4 and later challenge for gold. Hard-hitting Morgan Matetic will try to spark the Indians’ offense, and the Highlanders boast a talented arm in Anna Lauterbach, who finished third in the WPIAL and tied for the Quad-A regular season lead with 186 strikeouts after putting up a 13-3 record. Look for Shaler, which lost the WPIAL title game to Lebo (and lost to the Blue Devils at states), to come out of Section 3 with a shot at redemption, as Sydney Smyers is in her first full year as new starting pitcher, and catcher Lauren Hackett earned all-section honors in 2010. One under-the-radar team to watch is North Hills. The Indians have a lot of experience between pitcher Jess Rectenwald, who struck out 119 the previous regular season, and manager Libby Gaisor, who was a member of their last WPIAL championship team in 2000.
Section 1 might be a gold mine for teams likely to compete in the postseason–pun entirely intended–and it might be one of the toughest in the entire WPIAL. Montour looks like a tremendous favorite to become the first winner of consecutive district titles in Class AAA since North Allegheny went back-to-back in ’02 and ’03. Pitcher Kaitlyn Kutchman is back after going 14-6 during the 2010 regular campaign and finishing third in Class AAA and eighth in the district with 163 K’s, while infielder Stacey Capp leads one of the most balanced lineups around after a solid freshman year. Ambridge will be thinking upset after getting nipped by Montour in the district final, and the Bridgers will count on another great campaign from recent basketball hero Kayla Haslett, who went 11-3 on the hill with 144 regular season strikeouts. West Allegheny reached the semifinals thanks largely to shortstop Ashley Gerhart, who was hitting .500 after the 2010 playoffs, though the Indians will need her supporting cast to continue evolving if they wish to compete again.
If the Spartans are not bound for more diamond glory at California University, it might be because of the Valley Vikings, a longtime power in Class AA that is playing up due to periodic realignment by the WPIAL. For another loaded Vikings squad the Section 5 crown appears to be theirs to lose, and the ability of pitcher Caitlin Nealer to take over a game could make the 2011 postseason an interesting one. She went a sparkling 17-0 during the last regular season to pace District 7, her 179 strikeouts ranked fourth in the WPIAL, and she led the team with 24 RBI. All-PIAA honoree Kelsey Bonk will provide Valley one of several steady bats. The dark horse in Class AAA is probably Yough out of Section 5, led by Nicole Sleith, who went 17-1 and owned the competition in 2010 with 269 regular season strikeouts. The Cougars were a WPIAL Semifinalist, and by the time the playoffs were over, Sleith led the state in that category. Another competitive team out of that section should be Belle Vernon, if Katie Gauden can stay healthy after posting 119 K’s and eight wins last year. Sister Molly Gauden, who has moved to third base, hit over .400.
With Valley gone, Burrell, the team that bowed to its geographic rival in the WPIAL Class AA Final, appears to have a leg up on district gold, given the lineup they’re fielding. Section 5 should be theirs for the taking, as one of the premier pitchers in the area, combined with an improved offense, should give them hope. Casey Moses led the Buccaneers during the regular season with a 13-2 mark, putting her in Class AA’s top five, and her 141 K’s put her in the top ten in the classification. Nina Spagnolo, the starting shortstop and daughter of manager Mike Spagnolo, provided multiple clutch hits in the postseason while batting .410 overall. Kaitlyn Sweeney brings another powerful bat, having hit .419 through the 2010 state playoffs. In the meantime, Valley’s departure also leaves the door open for a traditional power like Bishop Canevin, and the Section 1 champs should be even hungrier this year after a stunning first-round upset. Jamie Kertes, one of the top ten pitchers in the WPIAL, put the Crusaders on her back last regular season with a 14-2 mark while striking out 170, and talented infielder Shanna Quinn will be counted on to help the offense tread water with a number of new starters in the fold.
One possible x-factor in this year’s playoffs could be Avonworth, a Class AA newcomer and potential challenger to Canevin in Section 1. Catcher Melissa Milbert, a Class A all-section honoree, should be one of the team’s most consistent hitters. Infielder Natalie Zivic also made the all-section squad and led the ‘Lopes with five home runs and 20 RBI in 2010, and Ali Chambers could have a breakout year at the plate. Another under-the-radar threat could be Waynesburg, which reached the WPIAL Semifinals last season. Despite graduating its top pitcher, the Red Raiders should still be the team to beat in Section 2, featuring 2010 all-section shortstop Brianna Morris, who will provide valuable experience. Third baseman Taylor Johnson will also help the offense, something Waynesburg struggled with in the playoffs. But if we’re talking about these two programs, we might as well pencil Riverside into the list of contenders as well. The Panthers are a prime contender for the Section 5 title, and Emily Pritts, who ended 2010 with a miniscule ERA after striking out 124 and going 12-4 in the regular campaign, can steal some games.
Since 1999, when the WPIAL added Class A to softball, the gap between the haves and have-nots in that classification doesn’t seem to have diminished much, so let’s focus on the perennial powers. Vincentian Academy has already become the third WPIAL Class A team to win three championships in a row, and now it has designs on becoming the fourth team in the history of District 7 softball to “four-peat,” and the second to do it in Class A. But do the Royals still have the horses to be the team we’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing? The answer is yes…if the latest member of the Melvin family has anything to say about it. Vincentian is a dynasty within a dynasty, and Bridget Melvin, who is switching from catcher to pitcher after coming up huge in last year’s title game, comes from a long line of successful players at that school. Having said that, the addition of Sto-Rox, which is moving back down to Class A, will muddy the waters in Section 3. It’ll be interesting to see if infielder Vicky Vuljanic, an all-section honoree in 2010, can continue her proverbial hit parade against Class A pitching. Plus, the Vikings have Bill Palermo, one of the most successful managers in western PA history, in their dugout.
Section 1 features WPIAL runner-up Chartiers-Houston, which now becomes a more clear-cut favorite after some of the graduation losses Vincentian has had to endure. The Buccaneers should take the section title with relative ease, and don’t be surprised if in 2011 they begin a run of dominance like the one that Vincentian ended a few seasons ago. Kiersten Conwell finished fifth in the WPIAL with a 15-1 regular season record, and ended up tied for sixth in the WPIAL and tops in Class A with 173 strikeouts. Shortstop Rachel Tucker swung a mean bat even as a freshman and came up huge in the state playoffs. Catcher Colby Miller has always had good chemistry with Conwell, and she too is always capable of delivering a big knock. So with Class A being so top-heavy, it’s hard to imagine a sleeper team upsetting the apple cart, but Carmichaels looks good coming out of Section 2. Third baseman Megan Bayles adds power to the Mighty Mikes’ batting order, catcher Lindsey Osborne made the all-section team, and pitcher Felicia Burns showed great potential as a freshman in last year’s postseason.
For continuing coverage of WPIAL softball, be sure to check in with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2011 season!