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After making 1st playoff trip, McKeesport now a section favorite

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 11:51 p.m.
Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For Daily News
McKeesport's Jess Beitler delivers a pitch against West Mifflin on Friday, April 19, 2013, in McKeesport.

For the longest time, McKeesport softball coach Missy Conrad didn't know the last time the Tigers won a playoff game.

She's heard 15 years. She heard 25 years. She heard never.

“Well, I know it is 2013 now,” Conrad said.

McKeesport (17-5) sneaked up on everybody a season ago and finished undefeated in Section 2 for the first time in school history and won its first WPIAL Class AAAA playoff game with a lineup that featured three freshmen and eight underclassmen.

When you have virtually the entire team back, including reigning Daily News Player of the Year Vanessa Falce and three-year starting pitcher Jess Beitler, there's no sneaking up on anybody this year, and Conrad knows it.

“The girls know that teams are out to get them this year,” Conrad said. “They all have been working hard in the offseason to be ready for the teams wanting a piece of them. I think the girls know what is expected of them, and I don't think it is a secret of what we have.”

What McKeesport has is arguably the best player in the WPIAL in Falce especially if you consider what the then 15-year-old freshman shortstop did against Quad-A competition last year.

Falce hit .513 with 10 home runs, 40 RBIs, 30 runs, 39 hits, nine doubles, and five triples — all team highs. During a nine-day span near the end of the regular season, Falce had three two-homer games against section opponents — Woodland Hills, Plum and Gateway.

“Everybody knows who she is and what she can do now,” said Conrad, who has a 32-24 record in three years. “She works hard enough every day that she is going to live up to what she did last year, if not better. She knows what she did last year and what is expected of her this year.”

Falce will have plenty of help.

Beitler went 17-5 a season ago with a 1.48 ERA and 140 strikeouts, including a perfect game against Penn Hills, but did as much damage at the plate as she hit .447 with 28 RBIs and four home runs.

Throw in the return of Dom Clark (.368), Courtney Patterson (.400), Mai Gooden (.320), Kai Gooden and Katie Barry, and the Tigers could surpass last year's offensive barrage of nine runs per game.

The one question mark for McKeesport will be at catcher with the graduation of Kasey Dansak. Conrad is still unsure who will be the everyday catcher heading into Saturday's opener at Fox Chapel.

“Honestly, that's still up in the air,” Conrad said. “I've had a couple girls interested in it this year, so we've been working with them. Once game day comes, whoever is going to be in there is whoever is catching the best.”

Actually, that's the approach Conrad is taking with most of the lineup. Even though eight starters return, she stopped short of calling anybody starters other Falce, Beitler and Kai Gooden.

“There are a couple of positions out there that aren't set in stone,” Conrad said. “It is whoever is practicing harder and hitting better, and that's who is going to play. We just had a conversation two days ago at practice, and I told them that everybody is starting at 0-0 and everybody's batting average is at zero, and that's how we look at it.”

Plum and Gateway should give McKeesport the most resistance in Section 2. But just don't ask Conrad anything about playoffs and a possible WPIAL championship run because she won't go there.

“We have to play it one game at a time,” Conrad said. “We never look too far ahead. We have talked about what we want to do. If we don't win our section then we aren't going to do well in the playoffs, and if you don't do well in the playoffs you aren't going to WPIALs. That's why we are just focusing on one game at a time.”

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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