Sophomore pitches in for Penn-Trafford softball team's success
Penn-Trafford pitcher Nicole Smith took a page from a magician's handbook when asked about her recent success.
After the Warriors beat Norwin 9-1 on May 2 to clinch the final playoff spot from Section 1-AAAA, Knights coach Andy Phipps said his team couldn't seem to make solid contact against the Penn-Trafford sophomore, instead popping most of her pitches up.
Smith isn't about to let opponents to know why.
“That's my secret,” she said. “I'm not going to share that one.”
While Smith's pitches will stay a secret for now, Penn-Trafford opponents are learning how difficult she can be to face.
In addition to the strong performance against Norwin, where she allowed three hits and struck out seven batters in a complete-game victory, Smith shut out section opponents Hempfield (2-0) and Franklin Regional (7-0) to lead the Warriors (12-5, 8-4) back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Penn-Trafford was scheduled to play Plum in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Gateway.
“She's done very well for us the second half,” Penn-Trafford coach Sam DeNillo said. “The first half, a lot of the teams didn't see her. Right now, we've been pitching her a lot, she's been doing well and the girls have really been playing a good defense behind her.”
Following Smith's example, DeNillo kept the identity of his starting pitcher for Tuesday's playoff opener a secret.
Smith said she was “really nervous” when she first got her chance to pitch regularly in the second half of the season.
“I didn't want to let the team down, so I've just been working as hard as I possibly can to help win the games (and) give everybody a good chance,” she said.
The sophomore's emergence coincided with an overall team improvement the second half of the season. After splitting their first eight games of the season, the Warriors had won eight of nine games heading into Tuesday evening's WPIAL playoff opener against Plum.
After Penn-Trafford finished in fourth place in the section in 2012, DeNillo said he counted on some of the players who had made the postseason before to lead the Warriors back in 2013.
“We always look forward to the playoffs, and last year was really rough,” senior catcher Jess Zavolta said. “I feel like this year we all came together, and we knew we were going to make it.”
Senior Danielle Wally said an attitude adjustment helped the team become more cohesive as the season went on.
“We all played together as a team towards the end (and) came together,” Wally said.
Before Tuesday's game against Plum, which ended past the deadline for this week's edition, the Warriors hadn't played a regular game in 12 days.
The team did play an exhibition game last week against Greensburg Central Catholic but ended it after four innings.
“The girls are ready to go,” DeNillo said. “I think probably every team in the section feels the same way right now.”
Penn-Trafford and Plum did meet earlier this season, on April 26, and the Warriors came away with a 9-0 victory. But DeNillo said that game didn't give him any extra confidence heading into Tuesday's matchup.
“We're taking each game as they come,” he said. “I'm hoping that the girls keep their head on straight and realize that any team can be beaten at any point of the game now. I'm going into this game like we've never played them, and they're a team that we've never beaten before.”
Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.