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West Mifflin plans to continue softball revival

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 1:51 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
West Mifflin pitcher Paige Flore celebrates after recording the last out to defeat Trinity, 9-5, during their WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal-round playoff game Monday May 20, 2013, at California University's Lilley Field in California.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brandon Sutter beats Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen for a third-period goal Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

A share of the section title, a trip to the semifinals, a game shy of qualifying for the state playoffs and a 17-win season is, by all accounts, a pretty solid softball campaign.

For West Mifflin, it was once-on-a-generation season. Fourteen consecutive losing seasons — 13 of which resulted in 10 or more losses — no playoff appearances since 1998 and no section titles since 1995 was wiped away in a span of two months.

The hard part for sixth-year coach Casey Phillips is trying to sustain it.

“We want to take a culture of losing and make it into a culture of winning,” Phillips said.

That's not an easy thing to do, and Phillips knows all about it.

Phillips took over a 1-15 team in 2009 and put together seasons of 1-7-10, 7-9, 3-11 and 8-11 before last year's breakout 17-6 season.

“It's not easy,” Phillips said. “But now the expectation are high, and hopefully we will rise to the challenge.”

West Mifflin came within a 5-4 loss to Ambridge from advancing to its first WPIAL Class AAA championship game a year ago.

“It sticks with you for a little while, but when you put in into perspective of how far the program has come in the five years that we've been here, you can't look at it anyway other than a success,” Phillips said. “I couldn't have been happier, and it makes it all the more exciting for this year because we know what we are capable of doing.”

The challenge for West Mifflin this year is replacing four four-year starters and three-quarters of its infield in shortstop Marla Small, second baseman Kaylynn Andress and third baseman Syd Zalice, along with center fielder Amanda Leschak. Small, Andress and Leschak are playing college softball.

“We feel good about the team we are bringing back,” Phillips said. “We have some people who are ready to step in and a couple of young kids who are going to have to grow up in a hurry. But in softball, the pitcher is the big ‘X' factor.”

West Mifflin's Paige Flore is one of the best in Class AAA.

Flore, a four-year starter and the reigning Daily News Softball Player of the Year, went 12-5 last year with 90 strikeouts. But Phillips has the luxury of another solid pitcher in Crystal Cook.

Cook went 5-1 last year but will likely see most of her time at first base because of her defense.

“It's nice to have more than one arm,” Phillips said. “We will play it by ear, but Crystal is our best defensive first baseman. We want the best nine out there, and I'll leave it at that.”

Returning are Cook (.348) at first, Alyssa Cairns (.329) behind the plate and the outfield of Chelsea Hess (.303), Shannon Davis (.348) and Taylor Lapko.

Sophomore Amber Cook will take over at shortstop, with Kasey Larson or Brooke Lowe at third and Lauren Ackerman (.348) at second. Ackerman was the designated hitter last year.

“They are new starters, but they were the primary backups last year and around the varsity all of last year” Phillips said. “They know what the expectations are and have groomed themselves to be starters this year. We have some holes to fill, but we have some people who can answer the call.”

Phillips likes his chances in the postseason — that is, if his team qualifies for the playoffs. West Mifflin plays in one of the toughest sections in the WPIAL, with Belle Vernon, South Park, Southmoreland, Elizabeth Forward, Thomas Jefferson and Yough.

“The section is such a bear,” Phillips said. “There really is no dog team. Anybody can beat anybody on any day. It's such a cliché, but I challenge you to find a better section in the WPIAL. We feel that if we can get in that we have as good as a shot than anybody. We just have to get there.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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