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Massive graduation loss hasn't slowed Shaler softball

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Shaler feshman Brianna Dobson pitches against North Allegheny on April 5, 2013, at Hilltop Field in Shaler.

This past autumn, for the first time since he's been coach of the highly successful Shaler softball program, Skip Palmer split up the high school-level Titans into two fall league teams.

“Usually the older kids are on one and the younger on the other,” Palmer said. “But this year we were so young I split them up, young with old.

“I think it's really paid off.”

It has. Despite losing 10 players to graduation after last season, Shaler is off to another strong start. The No. 4-ranked Titans remain undefeated in Section 3-AAAA games.

“I couldn't be any happier with how things are going,” Palmer said. “We're very young and very inexperienced, but they have bought into the system, and their work ethic is just unbelievable — and you're seeing the results.”

The Titans (5-1, 5-0) typically start four sophomores and a freshman, who join four seniors most games. And while -that might have created a tiered dynamic because the players would be coming up playing on different junior high and junior varsity teams, this season the adjustment Palmer made in fall ball has changed that.

“They act like one team now,” Palmer said. “There's no varsity and JV — they all are one team. That's what you want.”

In no area has Shaler's transition from last season's veteran crew to what is a very young team more telling than the replacements for pitcher Sydney Smyers and catcher Lauren Hackett. That pair moved on to Division I college softball — and they've been replaced by a freshman and a sophomore.

Freshman Brianna Dobson has taken over as Shaler's top pitcher, and AJ Nichols has gone from being a freshman outfielder to starting behind the plate.

“No doubt, we had some huge holes to fix,” Palmer said.

“Brianna is doing exactly what we want her to do. Later on in the next couple years she could become a strikeout pitcher, but right now when she's young she's keeping the ball down with great location.

“AJ, in fall ball I put her behind the dish and worked with her all winter, and she's been extremely good. She does the same things Hackett was doing. I keep telling her, ‘Keep this up — be another Hackett.' Even the umpire the other day told me, ‘You've got yourself another Hackett.' I've been very impressed with her behind the dish.”

The Titans' most experienced player is four-year starter Maddie Mulig, at shortstop. Outfielder Haley Stedeford is another tested senior, although this is her first season as a full-time starter.

Second baseman Julia Strackhouse and first baseman Taylor Brown are other seniors in the regular lineup. Brown did not play last season because she was injured, and Strackhouse moved from playing third base last year.

Sophomore outfielders Haley Dengler and Mia Sipple and sophomore third baseman Rachel Nyman are Shaler's other usual starters. Dengler serves as the Titans' leadoff hitter.

“Three weeks ago, we just had a goal to take it a game at a time,” Mulig said. “Now that's kind of changed. Whether it being getting a sign for winning the section or WPIALs or states — we're known for that, signs up the hill (to the field) — and we're out to get a sign any way we could.

“We'll still like being the underdogs, though. It's crazy how we started out as underdogs, but now we've got so much confidence in ourselves.”

Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.

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