A-K Valley becomes hotbed for WPIAL softball
TribLIVE Sports Videos
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Leechburg softball wins, ties WPIAL record with 29th straight playoff berth
- Plum softball’s playoff chase comes down to final week
- Baldwin softball team continues to roll despite injured ace
- No. 1 Deer Lakes breezes past Freeport
- Roundup: Charleroi Area, Yough girls roll to easy wins
- Weather wreaks havoc on Bishop Canevin softball schedule
- Belle Vernon softball tops Thomas Jefferson