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Hitters could go the distance this softball season

| Monday, April 4, 2011

Three feet.

It's not a huge distance in the grand scheme of things.

But in Pennsylvania high school softball, the 36 inches the pitching rubber has been moved back this year could mean the difference between contending for a WPIAL title and missing the playoffs.

Last year, the PIAA adopted a resolution to move the rubber from 40 feet back to the collegiate standard of 43. Since this will be the first season the distance is implemented, there is debate as to whether the extra feet will benefit the hitters or pitchers.

"I think it's going to open up the hitting," Montour coach Bill Wills said. "Pitchers that don't rely on a lot of movement on the ball and rely solely on a fastball, I see them having difficulty because the hitters will be able to wait on the ball."

In Class AAA, where Montour is the defending WPIAL champion, there is a cluster of top-flight hurlers with a vast repertoire of pitches. There are two first-team all-state pitchers returning from last year, along with two honorable-mention all-state selections.

"For softball in general, everything has gotten better, and the pitchers have gotten better every year," Valley coach Carol Perroz said. "It just happens that, this year, they're all there in Triple-A."

Montour's Kaitlyn Kutchman and Valley's Caitlyn Nealer have WPIAL titles on their resume -- Nealer in Class AA last year. Ambridge's Kayla Haslett is one of the top hitting pitchers in the state, and Yough left-hander Nicole Sleith, who has committed to Robert Morris, had 362 strikeouts last season.

"This is my third year at Montour -- I was a coach in Class A before that, and I spent eight years in travel ball -- and, by far, this is one of the strongest Triple-As I've seen," Wills said. "And I mean overall for all of Triple-A."

The best could be getting better, too. Top pitchers have spent quite a bit of time with travel teams that are accustomed to the 43-foot distance, and better hurlers are fine-tuning rather than overhauling their deliveries.

"I think it's going to increase a lot of pitchers' speed and increase movement on pitches, but it depends on the pitcher," Sleith said. "If the pitcher has good movement, I think it will be beneficial, but if they rely just on their speed, it won't."

Since most pitchers aren't of Sleith's ilk and rely on their fastball to get them out of every jam, softball could be a hitter's paradise until the rest of the pitchers adapt.

"I think it's going to open up the hitting," Wills said. "I feel that pitchers who don't have a lot of movement on the ball and just rely on a fastball are going to have a lot of difficulty."

Still, considering how good the pitchers are from top to bottom in this classification, there could be a dearth of hitters who find the new distance appealing.

"I think that Triple-A is a very strong classification," Sleith said. "Honestly, I think it's a lot tougher than Quad-A even."

The season ahead, by class

Class AAAA

» Defending WPIAL champion: Mt. Lebanon

» Defending PIAA champion: Mt. Lebanon

» Players to watch: Tess Apke, sr., INF, Mt. Lebanon; Alyssa Bates, jr., C, Hempfield; Lauren Hackett, jr., C, Shaler; Alexa Larkin, sr., P, Latrobe; Anna Lauterback, jr., P, Baldwin; Sydney Smyers, jr., P, Shaler

» Projected section champions: Section 1 -- Latrobe; Section 2 -- Franklin Regional; Section 3 -- Shaler; Section 4 -- Mt. Lebanon

» Notable: Mt. Lebanon is the defending champion but will be hard-pressed to find a pitcher to replace 2010 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Player of the Year Genna Badolato, who threw a perfect game in the state final. Apke, who has committed to Robert Morris, will help in the transition since she is one of the top offensive threats in the WPIAL. Latrobe will be in the mix with Larkin, a Pitt recruit who is one of the few dominant left-handed pitchers in the classification. Shaler went through some turmoil at the end of last season when Smyers replaced senior starter Abby Nichter at the start of the WPIAL playoffs. That postseason experience should help the Titans, who will attempt to win their first title in six years.

Class AAA

» Defending WPIAL champion: Montour

» Defending PIAA champion: Bellefonte

» Players to watch: Kelsey Bonk, jr., OF, Valley; Alaynna Beers, sr., INF, Yough; Stacey Capp, so., INF, Montour; Kayla Haslett, sr., P, Ambridge; Kaitlyn Kutchman, jr., P, Montour; Caitlyn Nealer, sr., P, Valley; Kristina Scott, sr., OF, Hampton; Nicole Sleith, sr., P, Yough

» Projected section champions: Section 1-- Ambridge; Section 2 -- Montour; Section 3 -- Belle Vernon; Section 4 -- Yough; Section 5 -- Valley

» Notable: Yough would be an easy pick to win the title, but the Cougars were exposed during the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs last season because of a lack of offense. Pitching won't be a problem, though: Sleith, a Robert Morris recruit, is far and away the best of a strong group in the classification, and her 362 strikeouts were the most in the state last year. Montour brings back a strong contingent, as it attempts to become the first team to repeat as Class AAA champion since North Allegheny in 2002-03 (before Class AAAA was added). It will be interesting to see what defending Class AA champion Valley does after biennial realignment moved the Vikings up a notch.

Class AA

» Defending WPIAL champion: Valley

» Defending PIAA champion: Nanticoke

» Players to watch: Dana Achille, so., P, South Park; Darcy Bostich, jr., P, Bentworth; Jamie Kertes, sr., P, Bishop Canevin; Rachelle Miller, so., P, Mohawk; Casey Moses, sr., P, Burrell; Nina Spagnolo, sr., INF, Burrell

» Projected section champions: Section 1-- Bishop Canevin; Section 2 -- Bentworth; Section 3 -- Burrell; Section 4 -- Greensburg Central Catholic; 5 -- Mohawk

» Notable: Considering that Valley was pushed up to Class AAA, this would appear to be Burrell's year to win its first WPIAL softball title. Led by Seton Hall-bound Moses, the Bucs have a solid lineup returning, and the team learned a lot from playing in both the WPIAL championship game against Valley and losing to Phillipsburg-Osceola in the state quarterfinals. Bishop Canevin has a lot to prove after getting bounced in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs last year. The Crusaders came in as a No. 2 seed. Bishop Canevin will go as far as Kertes can carry it. Mohawk is another team in that boat, with a strong pitcher in Miller but coming off a first-round playoff upset. The Warriors were the No. 3 seed but were dumped by Ford City.

Class A

» Defending WPIAL champion: Vincentian

» Defending PIAA champion: Chartiers-Houston

» Players to watch: Kayla Briggs, so., 1B, Chartiers-Houston; Kaitlyn Coles, jr., P, Jefferson-Morgan; Kiersten Conwell, sr., P, Chartiers-Houston; Maddie Grimm, so., INF, Ligonier Valley; Christina Henderson, sr., P, Ligonier Valley; Bridget Melvin, jr., P-C, Vincentian; Colby Miller, jr., C, Chartiers-Houston; Lauren Sauerwein, sr., C, Mount Alvernia

» Projected section champions: Section 1-- Chartiers-Houston; Section 2 -- Jefferson-Morgan; Section 3 -- Vincentian; Section 4 -- Mount Alvernia; 5 -- Western Beaver

» Notable: One of these days, Vincentian will run out of Melvins, but not yet -- which makes the defending champion one of the top contenders in the classification. Bridget Melvin, like her sisters before her, will make the transition from catcher to pitcher. Chartiers-Houston lost to Vincentian in the WPIAL championship game, but thanks to a state title run, plenty of people got to see the Bucs play late in the year, which resulted in several players being named to the all-state team. Conwell is one of the better pitchers in the area, but unlike most hurlers, she has a steady offense behind her that can compensate for the occasional bad inning. Sto-Rox has a better tradition than most teams in Class A and always is a team to contend with.

City League

» Defending champion: Brashear

» Players to watch: Kaylee Girdwood, jr., P, Brashear; Ronni McKown, sr., P, Allderdice

» Projected champion: Brashear

» Notable: It would be difficult to pick against the two-time defending champion Bulls, especially considering they gave eventual state champion Mt. Lebanon a run for its money in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs in 2010. Girdwood is a dominant pitcher who could surprise a WPIAL team in the first round of the state playoffs this year.

Additional Information:

Preseason rankings

Class AAAA

1. Shaler

2. Latrobe

3. Baldwin

4. Hempfield

5. Peters Township

Class AAA

1. Montour

2. Valley

3. Yough

4. Ambridge

5. Hampton

Class AA

1. Burrell

2. Bishop Canevin

3. South Park

4. Bentworth

5. Greensburg Central Catholic

Class A

1. Chartiers-Houston

2. Vincentian

3. Sto-Rox

4. Jefferson-Morgan

5. Mount Alvernia

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