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Expectations high for Hempfield softball team

Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review - Hempfield Area's Justyne Falbo looks to bunt against Ligonier Valley during their nonsection game at Hempfield Area High School on March 30, 2012.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review</em></div>Hempfield Area's Justyne Falbo looks to bunt against Ligonier Valley during their nonsection game at Hempfield Area High School on March 30, 2012.
Submitted photo - Hempfield pitcher Hope Pehrson
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Submitted photo</em></div>Hempfield pitcher Hope Pehrson

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By Alex Oltmanns
Thursday, March 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Although it may have seven starters and 12 letter-winners returning from a team that went 18-6 and played in the WPIAL Class AAAA title game last year, the goal this year for the Hempfield softball team is no different.

“Our goal every year is to get to the finals whether we have kids returning or not,” coach Bob Kalp said. “Every year, our aspirations are to win the section, qualify for the WPIAL (playoffs) and do well in the playoffs. You shoot for that every year. The fact that we have a veteran core of players returning that were there last year, it makes it a little easier to convince them that it's doable.”

The Spartans return a strong core from last year's state playoff qualifying team that was a co-champion in Section 1-AAAA. Last season's starting first and second basemen and shorstop all return.

Senior shortstop Justyne Falbo returns after hitting .356 last season with 14 RBI in an all-section campaign. Senior catcher Maddy Knizner hit .382 with 15 RBI a year ago, and second baseman Callie Madden and first baseman Kelly Mahoney also anchor the veteran infield.

Those players pose for a formidable lineup already, but arguably the Spartans best returning player didn't play last year.

After missing the 2012 season with a torn labrum, junior outfielder Kasey Kolick returns to the starting lineup after hitting .560 with four home runs and 25 RBI in 2011.

“What a number of people that are comparing our team this year from last year forget was last year one of our key injuries was to Kolick, our best offensive player the year before,” Kalp said.

To complement their hitting, the Spartans will lean on senior Hope Pehrson and sophomore Taylor Bartlow on the mound this season. The team also welcomes junior transfer Kelly Clark.

Pehrson posted a 7-2 record last year with a 1.24 ERA. Bartlow went 1-0 without surrendering an earned run in limited innings as a freshman.

Injuries to key players like Kolick and Pehrson last season forced others to step up and lead Hempfield on its postseason run, something that has Kalp encouraged for this season.

“If we can duplicate that, if these kids can do again what they did last year, we certainly should be in contention to win our section and do some damage in the playoffs,” the 16-year Spartans coach said.

Though his team enters the season as one of the top contenders for the Class AAAA crown, Kalp recognizes that Section 1 — with teams like Latrobe, Norwin, Franklin Regional and Penn-Trafford among others — will pose a challenge.

“It's going to be a meat grinder this year in the section,” Kalp said. “There's no guarantee that we're going to win the section.”

“I like our section from top to bottom. Every team is very competitive, and I think that's good for the teams that do get to the playoffs because we're not having four or six games within our section that are just blowout games. They're all going to be good games.”

For Falbo, what the veteran-laden Spartans need to do to avenge their loss to Canon-McMillan in the WPIAL title game last year and take the next step, is to approach each game with the proper state of mind.

“We have a lot of returning players so just keep all the new girls coming up focused, and don't let everything get to you,” she said. “As long as we keep a good mindset we'll be fine.”

Alex Oltmanns is a freelance writer.

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