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Ambridge softball is hoping three is a charm

| Thursday, April 12, 2012

Losing the past two WPIAL Class AAA championship games doesn't change the prevailing opinion that the Ambridge softball team is one of the area's standard bearers, and doesn't do much to alter the perception that the Bridgers yearly are a threat to win it all.

It does, on the other hand, stoke the program's already competitive fires.

"It's good to be able to say you were in those games, but it stinks that you lost," senior shortstop Nikee George said. "This year, I feel like it's our year, and I feel like we're going to be there again."

The vast majority of their section slate remains, along with plenty more hurdles, but the No. 1-ranked Bridgers are thriving with a young lineup and are tied for the most wins in their class, at 8-1 (2-0 in Section 1). That mark includes a season-opening triumph against tough Chartiers Valley and a commanding 7-2 victory against preseason contender and nonsection rival Montour.

It's not with disbelief that the Bridgers are viewing their fast start. The pleasant surprise, instead, is that they've been able to so quickly move past the graduation of six starters — including all-state honorable mention pitcher Kayla Haslett.

"A lot of us didn't play that much last year, so this year we've stepped it up a lot," junior infielder Hannah Krokonko said. "We've shocked a lot of people, including ourselves. We had confidence, but I think we're surprised at how good we've actually gotten."

George, joined by Allison Slinger as Ambridge's only seniors, provides a big chunk of leadership — and offense. A year after driving in 25 runs and scoring 20, she's batting .385 and showing a flair for the dramatic, blasting a two-run walk-off home run April 5 against New Castle.

"Nikee puts a lot of pressure on herself," Bridgers coach Jim Huwar said. "She knew there were some expectations on her because of being a senior."

Among the biggest questions coming into the season, though, was how well junior Hannah Smith would handle being the Bridgers' new No. 1 pitcher — a job she's fully embraced, posting eight wins with a 1.40 earned-run average.

"(Haslett) had big shoes to fill, and I definitely looked up to her a lot," Smith said. "She definitely gave me some words of wisdom before she left."

Behind Smith, the Bridgers' pitching staff features a pair of freshmen: Kelly Haslett, the younger sister of Kayla Haslett, and Heather Mueller, who also plays in the outfield and bats a team-high .500.

"A lot of people didn't expect a lot from us, having a lot of young kids," Huwar said. "These kids have come out practicing hard, coming to practice all the time, not complaining and doing a great job."

And even if a large segment of Ambridge's roster either wasn't on the team or didn't see much playing time for the squad's back-to-back title game losses, the mission is clear after the near misses with gold.

"We want to prove we can win it," Smith said. "We want another chance. Two in a row, that's hard."

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