Freshmen make immediate impact for Deer Lakes softball team
A year ago, Sarah Blinn and Maureen Hutchinson were a pair of wide-eyed eighth-graders nestled among the 1,098 in attendance at California (Pa.) University's Lilley Field for the WPIAL Class AA softball title game.
On Thursday, the freshmen will be on the field trying to help Deer Lakes (18-0) win a second straight championship.
At the start of the season, Lancers coach Craig Taliani — somewhat sheepishly, as if to hide a secret — said he might have a few freshmen contributing to the team.
Secret's out: These girls can play.
“It's really exciting. I still can't believe it,” Blinn said. “We were just watching (the championship); now, we're actually there.”
Said Hutchinson: “It seems like yesterday we were watching (the final).”
Blinn is the starting third baseman and Hutchinson plays center field for the top-seeded Lancers, who will face No. 3 Riverside (18-0) in the final Thursday at Cal U.
“We knew we had some (freshmen) with potential,” Taliani said. “They have done a great job filling positions and have shown they can play in some pressure situations.”
In all, three freshmen start and two others contribute, mainly as courtesy runners.
Rachel Tanilli is the starting right fielder. Maria Taliani and Stephanie Drapela mainly run the bases.
“The seniors have been very motivational to us,” said Hutchinson, who transferred from Knoch after the seventh grade. “We all played on the middle-school team together and knew we'd have a chance to play (for the varsity).”
Hutchinson keyed a rally in the semifinals against Beaver when she led off the third inning with a double. She added a single — in the same inning — as Deer Lakes overcame a 7-0 deficit with an eight-run inning before posting an 11-7 win.
She finished with a team-high three hits and an RBI.
“We all feed off each other,” said Hutchinson, who is hitting .463 with 19 runs and 15 RBI.
Tanilli, who has 19 runs, said the progression of the ninth-graders is somewhat unexpected. It's simply a matter of voids to fill and players making the most of opportunities to fill them.
“We knew we would try out, but we didn't know what would happen,” Tanilli said. “It's uplifting to be contributing.”
Blinn, a defense-only player for now, doesn't have to look far for a role model. Big sister is just down the third-base line.
Senior catcher Hannah Blinn has been one of the team's top players.
“I watch how she does things,” Sarah said. “It makes me tweak what I am doing.”
The Deer Lakes Youth Softball Association serves as a feeder program for the varsity's best players. Almost every girl on the varsity team has played in larger tournaments and some of them play travel softball, which also exposes them to higher-caliber competition.
“The freshmen and sophomores put a lot of hard work in during the winter,” said sophomore pitcher Tiffany Edwards, who was a third baseman on last year's championship team. “And we can learn a lot from the seniors. They keep us motivated.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.