WPIAL softball powers find themselves in new classifications
Neshannock won its first PIAA Class AA softball title last season with a team made up mostly of talented underclassmen that went 24-1 and outscored opponents, 202-56.
The Lancers return what coach Tracy Kimmel calls the most talent he's ever seen at one time, which says something coming from the 15-year veteran coach.
Eight starters are back to defend their Class AA state title, but they have no chance of doing so.
That's because they are on a short list of favorites to win the Class A WPIAL and PIAA titles this season after biennial realignment slotted them in the lowest class based on the school's female enrollment.
“We've been there before. We've always been on the borderline as far as enrollment,” said Kimmel, citing their most recent stint in Class A when the Lancers went 29-1 in Section 5 between 2007-08. “I've always thought you should play where you're supposed to play. We could play up, but if you lose a pitcher or a key player, you're in trouble.”
Neshannock, with an enrollment of 146 girls in ninth through 11th grade, falls just short of the Class AA cutoff (149).
“It just comes down to the enrollment,” Kimmel said. “There's times we missed the cutoff by two kids. I don't think that makes us a Double-A team. It is what it is.
“We've probably had more success in Double-A than A ball. There is a difference in the competition. It's in the numbers, and you just don't have as many good players (in Class A). I'm not bragging, but we're good one through nine, just like last year.”
Neshannock isn't the only top-tier team that will be changing classifications and altering the landscape for Western Pennsylvania softball this season. There were shakeups in each WPIAL class that could affect how the postseason picture takes shape and determines which squads will be hoisting WPIAL and PIAA trophies.
Two-time defending WPIAL champion Chartiers-Houston proved to be the best team in Class A last season after defeating Carmichaels in the title game but will be tested in Class AA this year, as the school's female enrollment (163) crept over the cutoff.
“I think sometimes in some of the Class A sections, you get down to some of the teams that aren't as strong. There won't be as many 20-0 games in Double-A,” said Chartiers-Houston coach Tricia Alderson, whose teams were 47-3 the past two seasons in Class A.
“I think our section is going to be really, really tough. We just have to do the best we can and get into the playoffs. At that point, anything can happen.”
Class AAA welcomes in Southmoreland and its three-headed pitching machine that could cause Section 3 teams fits this season. The Scotties female enrollment (263) was just six students past the Double-AA cutoff.
“Every game will be competitive. We're going to have to play our ‘A' game moving up a level,” said Southmoreland coach Kim Kelley, whose team features a feared rotation of sophomore Kristen Suhan, who started all last season, as well as GCC transfer Anna Marie Gatti and southpaw freshman Briana Bunner. “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best and play the best. I like our chances.”
Southmoreland's former section rival, Mt. Pleasant, also moved up to Class AAA, but was slotted in Section 4 with other Fayette and Westmoreland county teams. Southmoreland will play in Section 3 with mostly South Hills area schools.
“They're all strong teams. It's going to be a competitive section from top to bottom,” Kelley said. “It's exciting. I'm anxious to see how we do. It should provide us with a good challenge.”
Class AAAA's biggest change this season will be the addition of two City League powers — Allderdice and Brashear — who along with Carrick (Class AAA) join the WPIAL this season.
“We should do all right,” said Brashear coach Hank Hogle, whose Bulls won four straight City titles and five of the past six. “We're young this year, with only two returning senior starters. I think we'll have some growing pains, but when we settle in, we'll be all right.”
Brashear will play in Section 4 with Baldwin, Bethel Park, Chartiers Valley, Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township, Upper St. Clair and defending WPIAL champ Canon-McMillan.
“We're facing new competition,” Hogle said. “Fortunately, a lot of my girls play travel with a lot of these girls. The fear factor isn't there. I'm happy to see them anxious to start playing.”
Many of the teams on the move share that enthusiasm to begin play in their new sections and classifications, if for nothing else than to prove they are right where they belong.