A-K Valley becomes hotbed for WPIAL softball
On a map of the WPIAL, the Alle-Kiski Valley would be somewhere between first and second base.
But when it comes to softball, the area has been more like the hot corner.
The A-K has produced three consecutive WPIAL Class AA championships, and unbeaten Deer Lakes could make it four if it pulls a repeat.
The playoffs get underway this week, and the championship compass is pointing this way again.
“You're seeing peaks in the Valleys,” Burrell coach Mike Spagnolo said. “And an influx of talent that seems to be in our favor. The question is, will it stay this way? Only God knows, but hopefully we'll keep working hard as coaches to keep the wins coming.”
There have been five local champs in the sport since 2000 and four since 2007.
The A-K three-peat has come from one section — 3-AA. Deer Lakes won last season, Burrell held the trophy in 2011 and Valley won in 2010. Valley defeated Burrell in the championship game.
Other titles went to Valley in 2007 and Burrell in 2000. Leechburg won in 1991, '92 and '95.
Spagnolo believes coaching has a lot to do with the teams' success.
“I look around the WPIAL at some of the top programs, the Bill Palermos at Sto-Rox, Carol (Perroz) at Valley, myself here and Craig (Taliani) at Deer Lakes,” Spagnolo said. “Coaches develop those programs, and the common thing is that those coaches have been in place for a while.”
Leechburg coach Jim Oberdorf has more than 400 career wins, three WPIAL titles, two PIAA titles and has guided the Blue Devils to 27 straight WPIAL playoffs appearances. The team is in Class A this season.
A foundation built by coaches, Valley coach Carol Perroz said, can go a long way.
“Some of the best coaches aren't just there with their daughters and then leave,” she said. “These coaches stay with the program.”
Deer Lakes coach Craig Taliani thinks the area was destined to become a hotbed, and it was Leechburg that set the tone.
“I think it goes back to the (early 1990s),” Taliani said. “I was an umpire when I was in college, and that was when Leechburg had Jen Wolfe and she was making a name for herself. She was the first dominating pitcher in the sports around this area.
“Every year after that, (softball) got stronger and stronger. She opened people's eyes to what fast-pitch softball could be like.”
Taliani said umpires did not wear chest protectors then. At least not all the time.
“I know I wore one when I did (Wolfe's) games,” he said.
A rise in travel softball also has played a role in the spike in talent.
“It's nice to see players going year-round,” Spagnolo said. “That's a big plus.”
“People in the area have really taken a liking to the sport,” Perroz said. “Parents get involved and do the travel ball. When the girls come back into their seasons, you hope they bring back that fire. You hope they have a better understanding of the game. It sort of snowballs.”
Perroz didn't have a travel ball team to play on when she was growing up. Instead, she played in adult softball leagues — even as a 14-year-old.
“You played softball during softball season, then you moved on to volleyball and basketball,” Perroz said. “I played in the summer as much as I could. There was a women's league in Butler, and it eventually worked its way into Pittsburgh.”
Like Wolfe, and many other star hurlers who came through the ranks at Leechburg, Valley had a star pitcher when it won championships. Caitlin Nealer, now a standout at Allegheny College, also led Valley to a PIAA title in 2011.
Valley did not make the playoffs this season. The program can attest to the fact that the window of opportunity can close quickly.
“You have to have the athletes; you need that pitcher coming through the program,” Perroz said. “With (Nealer), I had something special. If you have someone like her, you can go a long way.”
Not every player on every team plays travel ball. But some play players rarely take time off from the sport.
Travel teams participate in dozens of tournaments in the summer, and many practice during the high school season.
“We're up at 6:30 in the morning on Sundays (during the high school season) for practice,” Deer Lakes junior first baseman Sierra Sarver said.
“It makes you wonder,” Taliani said. “What came first, the chicken or the egg? Did high school ball push travel ball, or did travel ball lend more experience to the high school level? I think the two have a hand-in-hand relationship.”
Like AAU basketball, travel softball provides a high caliber of competition, but some say it promotes individualism.
“You wonder if the girls get to work on game strategies and situations,” Spagnolo said. “You hope they're learning the game, too, not just playing all-star games.”
Perroz said Section 3 deserves a nod because its players go to their hometown schools.
“In this section, I sure like seeing public schools with girls who stay in their own areas,” Perroz said. “And believe me, I want my team to win, but I'll be hoping teams from our area do well, too.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.