Deer Lakes softball team sets standard in Section 3-AA
Deer Lakes' softball team will wear new uniforms customized by Nike.
If all goes as planned, the Lancers will just do it — again.
“We're pretty much not playing up to our standard if we don't win the WPIAL,” senior shortstop Becca Babincak said. “If we don't win it, we're playing down.”
A new WPIAL season is scheduled to begin Friday — weather permitting — and Deer Lakes has reminders of its thrilling 2012 run.
A fresh championship banner hangs in the school's gymnasium, and a soon-to-be posted emblem on the outfield fence also will signify the Lancers' WPIAL championship win, which came in their first appearance. They also added a PIAA playoff win along the way.
The last three WPIAL Class AA softball champions have come from the A-K Valley. Valley won in 2010, Burrell in '11. But neither team could do what the Lancers hope to: repeat.
“We know everybody's targeting us, but we're not expecting anything,” Lancers coach Craig Taliani said. “We have to work twice as hard now. They say the next one is the toughest one.”
Deer Lakes finished 20-2 and leaned on a prolific offense that produced 10 or more runs nine times. It also won five one-run games, including extra-inning victories over Mohawk and Greensburg Central Catholic in the WPIAL playoffs.
The bat barrel remains hot to the touch with several key players back. Only two starters are gone.
Sophomore Tiffany Edwards will take on an increased role as the No. 1 pitcher, with Sierra Sarver her backup. Edwards brings an array of pitches and is more of a strikeout pitcher.
Sarver was the WPIAL championship-game hero with a two-out, game-winning RBI single against Greensburg Central Catholic.
Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year Hannah Blinn also returns. The power-hitting catcher went 14 for 21 in the playoffs and batted .534 for the season with nine doubles, 27 runs and 15 RBI.
“She hits the ball with authority,” Taliani said.
Sarver hit .421 with a team-best 28 RBI.
Fourth-year starting shortstop and leadoff hitter Babincak, along with sophomore second baseman Katie Gozzard, should provide a reliable double-play combo.
“We'll be strong up the middle,” Taliani said.
“I think as long as we play like we can, we'll be all right,” Babincak said. “Anybody can have an off game. We run things a certain way. If little things, like turning the wrong way on a throw, is off, we stop practice. Those are the things we need to pay attention to.”
Freeport could present the Lancers with a roadblock in Section 3. The Yellowjackets also lose only two starters. They went 15-4 and lost eventual to state champion Neshannock in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Neshannock's only loss was to Deer Lakes in the semifinals.
“With (Deer Lakes) being the WPIAL champs and beating us twice last year, you have to view them as (the section favorite),” Freeport coach Sam Ross said. “But our girls know they were close. They've already been talking about playing Deer Lakes. We only lost four games, and two were to them.”
Key returnees include senior pitcher Alyssa Meta, senior third baseman Taylor Massart, senior catcher Emily Lindsay and senior center fielder Ashley Sample, who will attempt a dual-sport spring with softball and track. Sample hit .434 with 32 runs.
Section 3 coaches expect competition to remain heightened in what was an offense-first section last year.
“It may be one of the toughest top-to-bottom sections in Class AA,” Taliani said. “There's a four-way rivalry, maybe more.”
Deer Lakes is the pace car, though.
“Deer Lakes will be just as tough, if not tougher,” Burrell coach Mike Spagnolo said. “Momentum should carry over to this year. The thing about our section is, if you lose two games, you're probably not winning (the section).”
Burrell has four players back from the girls basketball team that reached the WPIAL semifinals and state quarterfinals, including shortstop/catcher Jaila Manga.
Standout pitcher Claire Fisher also returns after posting 60 strikeouts while hitting .397 with 17 RBI.
Deer Lakes likely will begin the season as the preseason No. 1 in many publications and media outlets.
“That's not something we're going to worry about,” Taliani said. “It only counts when you start playing innings.”
In Class AAA, two of the best shortstops in the WPIAL play for Alle-Kiski teams. Kiski Area senior Maddie Antone and Plum junior Jordan Seneca are receiving Division I attention.
Antone had seven home runs and hit .517 last season. Seneca hit .547 with nine doubles, five triples and 23 RBI.
Kenzie Young of Leechburg is one of the top pitchers in Class A. She was 11-2 with a local-best 105 strikeouts and drove in 33 runs.
Knoch, Highlands, Kittanning and Valley are returning playoff teams in Class AAA.
Leechburg has made the playoffs 25 straight years.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.