Deer Lakes softball builds on proud tradition with another 'great season'
As Deer Lakes negotiated its way through the WPIAL and PIAA softball playoffs, Craig Taliani heard some people express the thought that the team overachieved.
The Lancers' veteran coach “took a little bit of offense” to the notion.
“When you think about overachieving, that means you didn't quite have the talent, but you did it anyhow,” Taliani said after a 6-2 loss to Philipsburg-Osceola ended Deer Lakes' season in the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals. “These girls had the talent. They achieved. Was it unexpected? You might be able to say somewhat, but I think they played strong from the beginning all the way to the end of the season.”
Deer Lakes' softball tradition continued in full effect this spring as the Lancers (16-3) won an outright Section 1-3A title, advanced to the WPIAL championship game for the fifth time in six seasons, reached the state playoffs and beat Karns City in a first-round game.
Not bad for a team that needed to replace five starters — all of whom play collegiate softball — who graduated in 2016.
“I think the girls that stepped up into the starting lineup this year, they were ready,” Taliani said. “They had seen the last teams come through, and they were a part of it. A lot of those girls had played in different situations, and they're a pretty talented group of kids in their own right. Even though there were five new faces in the starting lineup, they just looked at themselves as the next group up and they played the way they were capable of playing once they got their chance.”
That's becoming part of the Lancers' lore. Every spring Deer Lakes faces the problem of filling the roles of valuable graduated players, and the team consistently finds a way.
“It was a great season,” first baseman Katelynn Blair said. “We had some great senior leadership, and they helped guide all of us to show us what type of players we needed to be to replace the girls we've lost in the past to be successful like Deer Lakes has been.”
Next spring promises the same situation as the team loses senior starters Brittany Dengler (third base), Becca Hoffman (second base), Shae Robson (center field) and Kristen Rudy (pitcher), along with reserve Cassidy Chmura.
“I expect there will be changes in positions and the lineup, but every year we expect that,” Taliani said.
Sometimes it even happens in-season. An early-season loss to Burrell caused Taliani to move Robson from the pitching circle to center and Rudy from the outfield to pitcher. The Lancers reeled off a 12-game winning streak, not losing again until the WPIAL Class 3A championship game against Ellwood City.
“They realized that they could go two ways: They could let that loss end the season and just kind of get it over with, or they could commit to making some changes and improvements,” Taliani said. “That's the route they chose, and they accomplished quite a bit. They were proud when they stepped out on the field. They didn't want anybody to think they weren't the next great Deer Lakes team. I appreciated that from them.”
Taliani said the team's “grit” stood out. Several times during the regular season and playoffs the Lancers faced a deficit they managed to overcome: section victories over South Allegheny and Freeport that helped Deer Lakes win that title, the WPIAL semifinals against South Park, and the PIAA first round against Karns City.
Even in the loss to Philipsburg-Osceola, Deer Lakes scored twice in the seventh inning to cut a six-run margin to four before the game ended.
“If we're down, we just pick each other up,” shortstop Danielle Huffman said during the playoff run. “We're confident, but not cocky. We just have confidence in each other.”
Said Blair: “No matter what the situation was, we never gave up. Whether it was a win or a loss for us, we were going to give it our all.”
More than that, the Lancers have confidence in their system. Taliani became coach in 2004 and shaped Deer Lakes into a perennial WPIAL contender, with championships in 2012 and '15 and runner-up finishes in '13, '14 and this season.
Next spring's core is in place: Rising seniors Blair and Huffman, the team's top two hitters this spring, will lead the way, supplemented by younger players who impressed in their playing time this season: rising senior Casey Buechel, rising juniors Kaylee Sciubba and Katrina Taliani and rising sophomores Makayla Blair and Maura Cerra.
“I think the future's bright,” Craig Taliani said. “We have a core of girls that got experience in a big setting, in a big venue, and they performed pretty well. We have some young girls coming up. We have a pretty good feeder program coming from the middle school. And we expect to be hopefully in the same position. That's the goal every year.”