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Planets hope section title is stepping stone in WPIAL playoffs

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Mars outfielder Jeanna Sybert makes a running catch in left field during a game against Seneca Valley Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Adams Township.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Mars pitcher Niki Schlegel delivers to the plate during a game against Seneca Valley Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in Adams Township.

Two section titles in two years might be good for most teams.

However, the Mars softball squad is hoping for something greater this season.

The Planets enter the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs hungry for their first district title since 2006. And, head coach Michele Goodworth thinks her squad has the talent to capture gold.

“This is the most-talented group I have had in my 15 years at Mars,” she said. “Most of them play travel ball. As coaches, we set high expectations at the beginning of the season. One of the goals and accomplishments (winning a section title) we were able to reach so far.”

Mars finished the regular season 9-9 overall. However, that .500 record is misleading. The Planets opened the season in Orlando, Fla., with four games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mars went 0-4 on the trip, but gained valuable experience for its return home. The team won its first four section games and six of its first seven to take charge in the section standings.

“That trip is a stepping stone for our team. We've done that trip before, and we have not won many games on previous trips,” Goodworth said. “The expectation was just to find positions, get on a field and practice and have some game experience behind us before we came back.”

The Planets wrapped up the Section 5-AAA title with a 7-3 mark.

“In our section, we had some games where we had some mental errors and breakdowns as a whole. Those three losses were tough. We have moved on and we believe playoffs are a new beginning,” Goodworth said. “We talked to the team about playoffs being a new season and what you have done to this point doesn't matter. It just takes three games to get to the championship.

“I think the team is peaking at the right time. We're really hitting the ball well,” she said. “We had 18 hits against Pine-Richland.”

Mars is a young team, but its lone senior — Taylor Rotz — leads the way. One of the WPIAL's top pitchers, she had a 9-6 record and 123 strikeouts in the regular season. At the plate, she had a .390 batting average, 13 RBI and 12 runs scored.

“I think Taylor has played a huge role in the team's success. She is very confident. She fields a lot of bunts and makes a lot of plays, too, and I think that helps out with some of those younger kids,” Goodworth said. “She is a role model and guides them. The experience of working together has been very beneficial for them. And, knowing that someone as talented as Taylor is pitching is in the back of their minds, which helps, too.”

Rotz committed to play softball at Nova Southeastern University, an NCAA Division-II school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and she isn't the only Mars player drawing collegiate interest. Junior shortstop Erin Hershman leads the team in batting with a .434 average. She has 19 RBI, 20 runs scored and swatted a program-best nine home runs. She gave a verbal commitment to play at Robert Morris University.

“She struggled a little bit early on, but I think she realizes what she is capable of doing,” Goodworth said. “She is really getting into the groove and finally believing in herself.”

Junior center fielder Kasey Jones is hitting .358 with 10 RBI and a home run. Sophomore first baseman Suzanne Papik is next with a .317 average, eight RBI, two homers and seven runs scored. The rest of the Planets are juniors Jeanna Sybert (designated hitter) and Sarah Dailey (right field), sophomore Kiernan Salada (second base) and freshmen Mallory Eperesi (third base), Blake Kitt (left field) and Niki Schlegel (catcher). Juniors Kassandra Johnson and Shelby Huber see time as well.

Goodworth hopes the team's young lineup learned from last year's playoff experience.

The Planets beat West Allegheny, 6-2, but fell to Greensburg Salem, 5-2, in the quarterfinals.

“Last season, we were very competitive and we got into the playoffs and it was a great accomplishment,” she said. “It was a goal, but we weren't quite sure where we'd end up. To reach that was a huge accomplishment. I think the girls were nervous since it was a long time for them to know what it was like to win at the varsity level.

“With that experience, I think they will be able to capitalize this year. The ‘A' team has to show up, though. I think the mentality is just taking one game at a time and focusing on making routine plays. We need to go back to basics and being mentally prepared to play.”

Goodworth and assistant coach Mike DelDuca are happy the Planets are back among the WPIAL's top Class AAA squads after failing to reach the postseason from 2008-11.

“To be back in the mix again is a huge accomplishment, especially when you put all that time and effort into it,” she said.

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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