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Home runs no longer rarity in softball

| Saturday, May 10, 2014, 1:16 a.m.

Plum softball coach Jim McGrath is concerned that his heavy-hitting team might have to resort to — gulp — small ball in the WPIAL playoffs because the Mustangs' first-round game is at North Allegheny.

“That's a big field, it's tough to hit one out, so we might have to focus on line drives and singles, and we've worked on bunting,” McGrath said. “You can't always depend on home runs.”

Plum has done pretty well depending on them so far. Asking this team to bunt would be like asking Zambelli's to light your birthday candles.

Plum has been one of the top home run-hitting teams in the state, sending up flares at an alarming rate. The Mustangs have gone deep 27 times, including 12 by sophomore Hannah Adamski, nine by senior Jordan Seneca and four by senior Melissa LeClair.

But Plum isn't alone. There are other local teams that have called their shots on a regular basis and the blasts have helped propel them into the WPIAL playoffs, which open Tuesday.

Deer Lakes has belted 17 homers. Freeport has 14.

“Home runs are fun to hit; they never get old,” Adamski said. “I always run around the bases with a smile.”

Deer Lakes has six different players with multiple homers. Sophomore Maria Taliani leads with four, while junior Tiffany Edwards, senior Sierra Sarver, sophomore Rachel Tanilli and sophomore Maureen Hutchinson have three each.

“The younger girls have really stepped up and I think there's more excitement when someone hits a home run,” Edwards said.

At Freeport, a freshman is leading the pack. Morgan McCarthy hit five of her seven homers in one day, during a doubleheader against Shady Side Academy.

Junior teammate Jess Kelley has five homers.

It used to be that the best softball teams wooed the stat hounds with strikeout numbers. Home runs weren't a given. But pitching and hitting appear to have switched chairs, the long ball now a full-fledged part of the game.

“Over the fence was rare at one time,” Deer Lakes coach Craig Taliani said. “I coached three seasons before a girl put one over the fence.

“How many 1-0, 15-inning games do you see now?”

Reasons for the barrage of way-backs vary. There's the pitcher's circle being set at 43 feet away from home plate — three feet farther back than it was a few years ago.

Then there's small fields. Plum's fence doesn't stretch past 200 feet at any point. The same goes for Freeport's makeshift fence.

“And let's face it, the bats make a difference,” Craig Taliani said. “That single-wall aluminum ... years ago you didn't have the compression you have today. The sweet spots are extended. They're working to catch the offensive side up with the defensive side.”

Edwards, arguably the Alle-Kiski's top pitcher, defends her fellow hurlers.

“I mean, (batters) have more time to react to pitches and get the bat on the ball,” she said, “but I know my breaking pitches are more effective. There's more room for them to break.”

But players still have to stand in, make contact and turn on one to hit it out of the park.

“When you know you have power you don't have to try to hit them,” Craig Taliani said. “The girls feed off that. When they see another girl hit a home run, they want to hit one.”

McCarthy has been launching homers since she was 10 years old. Just last year, in the USSSA World Series in Salisbury. Md., she homered for the Pittsburgh Spirit travel team.

“Ever since I was a young kid, I have imagined hitting home runs,” said McCarthy, who is hitting .521. “It's one of the most rewarding feelings you can have.”

Adamski turned heads early on when she hit seven homers in her first 11 at-bats of the season. She has driven in 29 runs, but that ranks third behind Seneca (37) and LeClair (31).

“It's about the right pitch, the right attitude and the right swing,” McGrath said. “Our girls have the confidence that they can hit home runs.”

Seneca, who is hitting .714 and has 14 career homers, said Plum can't simply expect home runs in the playoffs. Plum has never won in the WPIAL postseason and will take runs in any way possible.

“We've talked about small ball,” Seneca said. “If I have to put a bunt down, I will. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I don't want (Tuesday) to be my last high school game. No more 13-0, 7-0 losses. We don't want to go out embarrassed again.”

Plum has made the playoffs six straight seasons, but has been outscored 45-8 in its last five trips.

On Friday, Deer Lakes beat Plum, 9-2, in a scrimmage. Only one ball left the yard — junior catcher Kaitlyn Mallik hit a two-run shot for Plum.

McCarthy is only 5-foot-5 — “And a half,” she said — but she is quietly strong. She said she has a batting cage in the basement of her house and her father works with her on strength training, particularly on her wrists and hands.

“I feel like I have always been a home run hitter,” she said. “Just recently, the ball has been coming off more regularly. I just want to live in the moment while I can.”

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