Strong teams everywhere in Section 1-AAAA softball
One of the WPIAL's toughest softball sections got even tougher.
Realignment put three Star-area schools together in Section 1-AAAA for the next two seasons, which means the teams at Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional will have to go through each other to reach the postseason. Along with those three are perennially strong Hempfield and Latrobe, while Kiski Area and Connellsville round out the seven-team section.
Norwin and Hempfield split last year's section title for the Knights' first in 32 years, and Franklin Regional was the champ of Section 2, from which it was evicted to make room for WPIAL newcomer Allderdice. Add in the experience returning to Latrobe and Penn-Trafford, and the section will feature at least a five-team race for just three playoff spots.
Below is a look at what the local teams have entering the season:
The Knights are coming off their first section title since the year “The Empire Strikes Back” was the biggest movie in theaters, but with seven starters returning, Norwin is well-positioned for its own successful sequel this spring.
Norwin's power bats were the key to its success last year, and the top of the lineup again will be strong with senior shortstop Cassidy Chappell, senior centerfielder Nikki Ingel and sophomore catcher Maddy Wensel leading the way.
Junior first baseman Nikki Berardinelli and second baseman Lyndsey Robinson also return, while senior Lauren Long will move in from the outfield to third base.
“Hitting is definitely our strength. We're a power-hitting team, and until that doesn't work for us, we're going to stick with it,” Norwin coach Andy Phipps said.
Where the Knights have added the most firepower is in the pitching circle. Senior Jamie Robinson is back after a 14-3 season last year, and sophomore Hannah O'Block also has a year of varsity backup duty under her belt. The team also gets back junior pitcher Maddy Miller, who last year didn't play with the high school team, to give Phipps three solid options to choose from.
“We had a freshman backup that was solid last year, and Maddy Miller, who lettered in ninth grade, came back to pitch with us,” Phipps said. “Now we have three solid pitchers, and we don't have to work Jamie as hard. Hopefully, we can keep all of them fresh.”
Because of the early-season weather postponements, Norwin's scheduled opener now is a tough section opener at Latrobe on Saturday before the team faces three section games next week.
“We talked about it from the first day. We have a target on our back; we're not the underdog anymore,” Phipps said. “To make it out of this section, you've got to be a solid team, and whoever is performing in late April and May will make it out of the section.”
The Warriors last season had the disappointment of being the odd team out of the playoffs after finishing fourth, but Penn-Trafford returns all but one starter from 2012.
The one position left vacant from last year is pitcher, and Penn-Trafford coach Sam DeNillo will fill the job with a committee approach with senior Abrianna Sadler, junior Frankie Ponziani and sophomore Nicole Smith all sharing the load.
“We're dying to get outside after doing a lot of work inside,” DeNillo said. “I think a lot of the teams in our section can beat each other on any given day. It depends a lot on pitching and who makes the fewest errors.”
DeNillo was less concerned about his team's hitting, as the year or more of experience and familiarity with the section's other pitchers should help his returning starters produce runs.
Senior second baseman Alexis Ryan will likely handle the leadoff duties, with plenty of junior help behind her.
Shortstop Ashleigh Yanniruberto, third baseman Tori Lago, first baseman Cassie Szmyd, catcher Jess Zavolta and Sadler, who also plays first base and in the outfield, all return to the lineup. Ponziani also will normally start in the outfield when not pitching, where she will join speedy senior centerfielder Kelsey Surmacz.
With that much experience back, the Warriors hope for a season that ends differently than last year, when they were able to steal just one win from the section's top three teams, a 2-1 win over Latrobe.
“It was a very disappointing season last year, but we've taken care of things and our heads are on straight,” DeNillo said. “If a few things go our way, we'll be right up there.”
The Warriors are tentatively slated to start their section season Thursday, when they host Connellsville in the first of four games in six days.
The newcomer to the section will pose problems for the old powers, mainly because the Panthers have very few new faces in the lineup.
With only two seniors gone from last year — pitcher Sam Johnson and third baseman Savannah Barnes — the Panthers bring back plenty of experience, led by senior catcher and Maryland-Baltimore County recruit Kaelin Jackson. Jackson, a home-run threat every time she steps to the plate, heads a group of six seniors who will lead coach Jim Armstrong's team into its new section.
“We lost two pretty good girls, but we do have a lot of girls with varsity experience,” Armstrong said. “There are six seniors this year, and they're pushing people. They're working real hard, and the others are following their lead.”
One of those seniors, Dana Bacharach, will be the first to step into the circle for the Panthers, while Franklin Regional also can turn to sophomore Jessie Sammarone and freshman Kara Markowitz for pitching help.
Rangy senior centerfielder Courtney Roperti will be atop the FR lineup, while fellow seniors Krissy Siegel and Avianna Besh, junior Alissa Lockwood and sophomore Taylor Nonnenberg will fill the other two outfield slots.
On the infield, junior Alexa Fike moves to third base, sophomore Angela Buccilli remains at shortstop, and senior Nicole Berardinelli returns for another year at first base. Second base remains a battle entering the season, as Mary Komandt and Savi Medlang both could see playing time.
The Panthers are spending this week in Florida, which will be the team's first real chance to settle position battles and see game action. When the team returns, it starts section play on Tuesday at home against Norwin for a battle of reigning section champs.
“We wanted to get our first game (against Ellwood City last Friday) in, but our field was too far gone,” Armstrong said.
“We're in a real tough section, but we think we can compete with anybody,” Armstrong said.
“The pitching we're going to face is better than we've seen in our section before, and every day, we're going to have to be ready to play.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.