Postseason experience key for Deer Lakes softball
Its three-year run of success not quite ready to be over and a number of graduation losses notwithstanding, Deer Lakes still is the A-K Valley's softball team to beat.
The Lancers, who start the season ranked No. 1 in the Trib Total Media Class AA rankings, are 51-8 the past three seasons and have made reaching the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals a habit. They won the WPIAL championship in 2012.
The thing is, the team won with several underclassmen in the lineup, and many of them are back, including power-hitting first baseman Sierra Sarver, now a senior, and rising junior pitcher Tiffany Edwards, who has just two losses in her career.
“We're a work in progress,” said Lancers coach Craig Taliani, whose team is scheduled to open the season Friday at Fox Chapel. “We have to fill in some blanks, but I don't see a lot of intimidation. Postseason experience is a good thing; I think the freshmen have picked up on that.”
Gone are standouts Becca Babincak (Point Park) and two-time Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year Hannah Blinn (Allegheny), and dependable starters Leanne Crawford and Courtney Lubick.
But a quietly strong nucleus returns, led by Sarver and Edwards.
Sarver, who has committed to Division II Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., hit .421 as a sophomore, delivering the game-winning hit in the WPIAL final. Last year, she drove in 25.
She is the team's only senior but does not feel added pressure to be a vocal leader.
“I like pressure,” she said. “I've kind of taken traits from (the past seniors) and am applying them this year.”
Edwards went 19-2 last season with 133 strikeouts — she is 27-2 in her career — but also should be one of the area's top hitters.
“I feel obligated to be a leader, too,” Edwards said. “We lost some players but our attitude hasn't changed. I think we can be better than last year.”
Also back are junior second baseman Katie Gozzard, who will move to short, sophomore Sarah Blinn, who will move to catcher, and sophomore outfielders Rachel Tanilli and Maureen Hutchinson, among others.
Other storylines to watch this spring:
• Burrell could put pressure on Deer Lakes in Section 3-AA. Leading hitter and pitcher Claire Fisher is gone (Penn State New Kensington), but the Bucs return catcher Jaila Manga and will turn to junior Krista York to pitch.
• Freeport hit 22 home runs last season and will continue to swing for the fences with the return of junior Karlie Hill (.426, 6 HR, 23 RBIs) and senior Alexis Roenigk (20 runs, 4 HR). But pitching will be a question mark with the loss of Alyssa Meta. Junior Jessica Kelley will replace Meta. She was 3-2 last year in six appearances.
• Can Leechburg reload, like it does seemingly every year, with the graduation loss of standout pitcher Kenzie Young? Young was a dual-threat as a hurler and a hitter. She struck out 136 batters and had a 1.67 ERA, but also sported a .500 average. Rising junior shortstop Miranda Reesman is one to watch for the Class A Blue Devils, who will be playing for their 28th straight WPIAL playoff appearance.
• Plum's Jordan Seneca is one of the top shortstops in the state, but will the senior be able to fully recover from a broken right wrist she suffered during basketball season?
A St. Francis (Pa.) recruit, Seneca hit .564 with five home runs, 10 doubles, four triples and 24 RBIs last season. She also scored 35 runs.
Plum could push for the Section 2-AAAA title after finishing second last year.
• Highlands begins a new coaching era after the departure of longtime coach Mike Zendarski, who resigned after 18 years.
Former Springdale coach Jen Koprivnikar replaces Zendarski, who led Highlands to three straight playoff appearances and a near-upset of No. 1 seed and eventual WPIAL champion Greensburg Salem in the first round last season. No. 16 Highlands rallied but lost 6-5.
Highlands has to replace a talented multi-threat player in Gabby Miller, a pitcher who batted .581 with six home runs and 29 RBIs.
• Springdale will look to build off the momentum of breaking a 35-game losing streak. The Dynamos hadn't won since 2010 when they pounded Ellis School, 20-4. Springdale only won three games last year, but scored 20 or more runs in each of them.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.