A-K Valley schools providing softball pipeline to Allegheny
Welcome to softball's Alle-Kiski Valley North, as it's come to be known in Meadville, where one-time travel teammates and former opponents reunite on the diamond for a common goal: to help take Allegheny College's program over the top.
A-K Valley softball has blossomed across the last decade-plus into a hotbed for championship-caliber teams while becoming a tributary for recruiting. Allegheny saw that and hasn't let up in its bid to throw a net around the area's better players.
It has even landed players who many thought could play at a higher level than Division III.
There's Valley star pitcher Caitlin Nealer, one of the most dominant hurlers to play in the A-K Valley who has made her mark on the mound at Allegheny, and the Gators most recently added two-time Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year Hannah Blinn from Deer Lakes to bolster the catcher position.
“We joke a lot that half the A-K Valley is at Allegheny,” said Nealer, a WPIAL and PIAA champion at Valley. “It's cool to see girls you used to play against on your team now.”
Allegheny's roster features a half-dozen players with local ties, including two other Valley grads in sophomore catcher Katrina George and senior outfielder Maureen Pallone; Burrell's Ali Landowski, a sophomore infielder; and Freeport's Taylor Massart, a freshman corner infielder.
“I love recruiting in (that) area,” Allegheny coach Beth Curtiss said. “It has such strong softball traditionally, and produces so much talent.
“Recruiting there is certainly a priority for our program.”
Curtiss two years ago took over for Sandra Sanford, who started the A-K pipeline when she brought in Pallone and Nealer. Sanford resigned in 2012.
The Gators won the North Coast Athletic Conference championship last season and fell one game short of the NCAA Division III World Series.
Nealer (44-23, 1.74 ERA career), a fireballer who always is tinkering with her pitches, begins her junior season with high expectations after winning NCAC Pitcher of the Year in 2012 and making second-team all-conference last season.
In two seasons, she has struck out 468, the third-highest total in school history. She has yet to take the mound this season as she rests a sore shoulder, but she is anxious to get going.
“I've been working really hard over winter break,” said Nealer, who broke single-season records in starts (30) and innings (244) and was MVP of the NCAC Tournament. “I have added some movement pitches. It can't be all about speed. I like to play around with that a little.
“I have pitched so much against all of these teams; they kind of know what to expect with the speed thing.”
Currently, Allegheny (0-4) is on a spring-break trip to Clermont, Fla., where it's playing 10 games in five days.
Once the season gets rolling, Curtiss thinks the team can apply pressure to last year's achievements, and the local contingent will play a key part.
High praise on the inside corner.
“All (six) of these student-athletes have impacted our program in a very positive way,” the coach said. “They're certainly going to be impact players this year, and in years to come. They could go down as some of the best to ever wear a Gator jersey.”
Two-time WPIAL champion Pallone, a former All-NCAC first-teamer, started 40 games, splitting time in left and center field.
George, who won a PIAA and WPIAL title at Valley, was third in the NCAC last season with seven home runs, and she also drove in 21. She started 32 games as a freshman.
Blinn, a dead-eye hitter who helped lead Deer Lakes to a WPIAL title, already has made a couple of starts. She and Massart are roommates. They used to stare down one another as section rivals.
“We talk about the Deer Lakes-Freeport rivalry all the time and laugh because we've become such good friends,” Blinn said. “It's all very exciting; a lot of hard work, but very rewarding. I feel I have gotten faster, stronger and smarter on the field and up at bat.”
Massart said there was an almost instant comfort level seeing familiar faces on campus.
“It's really nice and comforting to have girls on the team that I know already,” she said.
Nealer said Allegheny is making a more concerted effort to recruit the WPIAL, not just nearby District 10 schools.
“Our assistant knows a lot of people from Penn-Trafford because she lives out that way,” Nealer said of coach Suzie DeNillo who, like Curtiss, coached the Pittsburgh Metro Express travel team. “It's starting to be more Pittsburgh-local.”
In all, Allegheny has 15 WPIAL players on the roster.
Knoch grad Mikayla Moretti left the team after her freshman season. The catcher is battling some health issues and said she plans to transfer to Slippery Rock next year and possibly restart her softball career.