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Fundamentals move South Park to verge of 1st state softball title

| Wednesday, June 14, 2017, 6:54 p.m.

South Park softball coach Larry Mercurio has served the last 19 years in the Pittsburgh Police Department as a K-9 officer and 16 as a member of the SWAT team, and at times he will show his players police instructional videos for a specific purpose — To show how proper fundamentals are important no matter the task at hand.

“They all gather around and think they're going to watch a cool video of people and dogs coming out of helicopters, but it just shows someone going to a door and then going back and resetting. Then going to the door again,” Mercurio said. “It's just the same movement over and over, trying to get it down. It's the same thing when you're hitting off a tee 20 times in a row trying to get your swing down. Sometimes it's boring, but it's necessary.”

The videos might not be as glamorous as a box-office thriller, but the Eagles (20-3) have responded to them by playing sound fundamentally and hope to continue their strong play as they try for their first state title when they face District 11 champion Pine Grove (25-2) at 4 p.m. Friday at Penn State's Nittany Lion Softball Park.

The softball team is part of a South Park doubleheader in State College on Friday. The baseball team plays Dallas, the District 2 champ, for the Class 4A baseball title at 1 p.m. Friday.

“It's definitely special, and it makes it more special that the baseball team is going to be up there at the same time,” Mercurio said. “It's great for the girls. They're the ones putting the work in. They're constantly challenging themselves to get better as a team.”

South Park has cruised past three district champs — Titusville, Ellwood City and Philipsburg-Osceola — en route to the state finals, outscoring their opponents 36-1. If the Eagles want to become state champion, they will have to get past a fourth district champion in Pine Grove.

The Cardinals boast a lineup that has seven players hitting over .400, led by sophomore Trish Kopinetz (.519) and senior Jennifer Kaufman (.518).

Mercurio said he's relying on his experience as a travel coach with the Ohio Outlaws in recalling some of the Pine Grove players.

“We're doing our homework,” he said. “The travel ball side of me is coming out a little bit. We're watching some videos and we know some of the (travel) organizations these girls play for. I think they're going to come out ready.”

South Park will counter Pine Grove's potent offense with Justine Dean, who allowed only one run in the PIAA playoffs. Dean, the lone senior starter for South Park, has a 1.76 ERA for the season.

The Eagles also have a strong lineup with six players hitting over .400. Leading that group is Kaitlyn Pavlik, a junior Pitt recruit, who has hit .595 with 10 homers. Dean and her younger sister, Jess, a sophomore, are both hitting .478.

“Justine deserves everything she has coming to her, because she has evolved in the last couple of years that I've known her,” Mercurio said. “She understands how to pitch. Not just to throw the ball. She knows when to pitch to contact and when to strike a batter out.

“Honestly, (Pavlik) is such a machine. She's humble. She doesn't make much noise, until she steps in the box. You know about her when she gets out of the box for sure.”

Mercurio said for the team to get this far everyone has to play a part. He mentioned a trio of freshmen who have been integral pieces in Grace Albitz, Taylor Glowa and Chelsea Carozza, along with sophomore Kaitlyn Morrison. Albitz hit a 3-run homer in the win over Ellwood City.

The main message heading into the state championship from Mercurio has been to remember those days in early March smashing softballs off a tee into a net in the gym and fielding grounders on the gym floor.

“I just keep reminding the girls about those days in the winter being stuffed in the gym,” Mercurio said. “They'd come in after school every day for a couple of hours. All that work that they put in was for right now, and I think these girls are going to give it their all.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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