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Coach Taliani behind Deer Lakes' softball success

| Thursday, May 30, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Deer Lakes' head coach Craig Taliani celebrates with Maria Taliani, his daughter, after she hit a home run against Leechburg on Thursday, May 9, 2013, at Leechburg Community Park.

When Craig Taliani started coaching Deer Lakes softball in 2004, he had a team. On the eve of potential back-to-back WPIAL Class AA championships, the coach now can say he has a program.

“Coach T has so much heart,” senior shortstop Becca Babincak said. “He wants to win, and he wants what is best for us.”

Taliani celebrated his 47th birthday last Wednesday with a rally that saw his team score eight runs in the third inning to overcome a 7-0 deficit after a 93-minute weather delay and topple Beaver, 11-7, in the semifinals.

If all goes as planned, he'll celebrate another title late Thursday afternoon if the top-seeded Lancers (18-0) can get past No. 3 Riverside (18-0) at Cal U's Lilley Field.

Always an it's-not-about-me coach, Taliani is in his ninth season. He's led the team to seven playoff appearances and four section titles (2006, '09, '12 and '13).

“Craig has had a steady, calming effect on this team,” assistant coach John Yourish said. “He knows when to push them and knows when to back off. The team is always prepared for just about anything.”

Taliani said he was concerned mainly with hitting when he began his coaching career.

“It was just club it,” he said.

But that thinking has changed.

“As I've gotten older and learned more, I am more concerned with defense,” he said. “Defense makes it easier, but you need to score runs to win. We work on fundamentals and situations in practice probably 50-50.”

A more well-rounded coaching style and an influx of talent have propelled the Lancers into perennial-power territory.

“He always says each game is your championship,” senior catcher Hannah Blinn said. “He has a whole bunch of things that he tells us. He always says to treat the championship like a baby.”

A former Grove City High School assistant baseball and softball coach, Taliani has been a history teacher at Deer Lakes since 2003. As a player, he was a catcher and outfielder at Deer Lakes before playing on Pitt's freshman team, which later folded.

He then walked on at Indiana (Pa.) where he was redshirted and stopped playing after a year. Family members say he can still swing for the fences, prompting outfielders to back up at family softball games.

There is a small gap in Taliani's coaching tenure. He left the program in 2007 to help his parents, who lost their house in a fire. Deer Lakes hired former Springdale standout Erin Exler to replace Taliani, but she resigned after one season.

Who knows what might have happened for Taliani had the position not reopened?

“I wanted to come back,” he said.

Always part of a baseball family, Taliani and his brother started a Tri-County league after Taliani got out of college. The league lasted five years.

“We always loved to play,” Taliani said. “We were always around the game.”

Hands-down, Taliani's top influence is his father, Vince, who at 85 years old, still attends his son's games.

“And he also still referees volleyball,” Taliani said. “He is an amazing man. He taught me to never quit and always be competitive.”

A war veteran, Vince Taliani played baseball at West Deer High before a minor-league stint with the Philadelphia A's.

Vince's other son, Mark, also played baseball at Deer Lakes and Penn State New Kensington.

“He's another big influence,” Craig said.

Their mother, Irene, died in 2011.

Taliani and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters, and both are active on softball.

Maria is a freshman on this year's team, and Katrina is in sixth grade. Maria, who often is used as a courtesy runner, hit a home run off of Leechburg standout pitcher Kenzie Young this season.

“My wife ia a huge supporter of the program, and she's our No. 1 fan,” Craig said.

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