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Much-improved Thomas Jefferson softball team plays for WPIAL title

Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch - Thomas Jefferson's Megan Fitzgerald (right) looks to turn a double play as Knoch's Abbie Thrower slides into second base during their first-round WPIAL playoff game Tuesday, May 13, 2014 at North Allegheny.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Erica Dietz |  Valley News Dispatch</em></div>Thomas Jefferson's Megan Fitzgerald (right) looks to turn a double play as Knoch's Abbie Thrower slides into second base during their first-round WPIAL playoff game Tuesday, May 13, 2014 at North Allegheny.
Getty Images - The Pirates' Jose Tabata connects on an eighth inning pinch-hit RBI single against the Mets on Monday, May 26, 2014, at Citi Field.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Getty Images</em></div>The Pirates' Jose Tabata  connects on an eighth inning pinch-hit RBI single against the Mets on Monday, May 26, 2014, at Citi Field.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 12:06 a.m.
 

It took a season of teaching and learning for the Thomas Jefferson softball team to find its way back to the WPIAL playoffs.

Oh, what a season it has been for the Jaguars, who have scratched their way into the Class AAA championship game against Mars on Thursday at Cal (Pa.).

“We're preparing for a journey to Mars,” joked Heidi Karcher, TJ's second-year coach who succeeded former longtime coach John “Hoppy” Mitruski. “We're pretty excited.”

A year ago, Thomas Jefferson won just three games in Karcher's first season after a year as coach at Class AAAA Peters Township, where she led the Indians to a 15-5 record and a trip to the WPIAL semifinals.

Now Karcher's 13th-seeded Jaguars (14-6), the third-place team in Section 3-AAA, and 12th-seeded Mars (12-4), the second-place team in Section 5-AAA, will play for a Class AAA title.

Regardless of the outcome, both will advance to the PIAA playoffs. TJ reached the WPIAL quarterfinals in Mitruski's final season in 2012 before slipping badly last season.

“I'm honestly not doing anything differently than I did last year,” Karcher said. “The only difference that we have had this year is a new assistant coach.”

Jason Namestka joined Karcher and holdover assistant Shannon Schleicher on the TJ staff, and, according to both women, he's been a difference-maker.

“He has a personality very similar to mine,” Karcher said. “I'm very animated and intense.”

“That male presence does make a difference with all these girls,” Schleicher said. “They have Jason to take the lead sometimes. He's a much more vocal person than I am. I'm kind of like damage-control for those girls.

“A lot of times, messages are conveyed by these two dominant personalities, and then, I'll pull a girl aside and say, ‘Look, this is what they meant.' ”

While Karcher, who played at Penn State, has raved about her assistants' marvelous ways, she said the team's chemistry healing didn't stop there.

“I had a lot of kids last year who I knew should not have been playing for me,” Karcher said. “Not because of their skill level but because of their attitude. I had a number of kids who did not come back this year.”

Karcher called her first season at TJ “miserable,” when the Jaguars went just 3-12 overall and 2-10 in Section 3-AAA.

“It almost ruined my whole spring season. We just kept getting beat,” she said. “I just felt the girls didn't have that desire. Actually, I knew most of them had it but couldn't channel it.

“I told the girls this year that we're not having the same type of season that we had last year.”

TJ restocked its roster this season with a number of young players, who Karcher said have embraced their backup roles with a sense of urgency.

“Honestly,” she said, “they didn't get a lot of playing time, but they know they are part of the team.”

Karcher was a backup catcher at Penn State during her college days and also played virtually every other position when needed. She referred to herself as a consummate utility player. She sees a lot of those qualities in her up-and-coming players at TJ.

“Three freshmen came in with the same desire and love of softball that I feel,” she said, referring to infielder/outfielder Sydney Flinn, first baseman Lindsey Kalup and pitcher/infielder Alysa Fairman. “I didn't reinvent the wheel. I just did what we did at Peters. It was a transition, but everything just kind of jelled.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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