Lady Jaguars' long journey leads to WPIAL Class AAA title
It began with spring training in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and developed into one of the greatest softball seasons in school history.
Thomas Jefferson's softball team qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs in its last section game, defeating Elizabeth Forward, 3-2, to wrap up third place in Section 3-AAA.
The Lady Jaguars, who had endured a three-win season in 2013, entered the playoffs with an 11-5 record, then rolled through the WPIAL tournament to claim the school's first-ever softball title.
“This group of girls is motivated and they know that they have the talent to win,” said Heidi Karcher, Thomas Jefferson's second-year head coach, early in the season. “Everything seems to be pushing in the right direction.”
No. 13-seed Thomas Jefferson defeated 11th-seeded Mars in nine innings, 5-3, capping a 4-0 run in the Class AAA tournament to earn the school's first WPIAL softball championship.
“It was just an awesome season for the girls' softball team and coaches,” Bill Cherpak, Thomas Jefferson's athletic director, said. “They created so much excitement for the school and community. We are so proud of all them.”
It took a true team effort to win the WPIAL title, according to Karcher.
“It was a great season,” she said. “We had an unbelievable turnaround due to the hard work by the team and coaches together.”
Instrumental in the Lady Jaguars' success was the senior leadership displayed by first baseman Kyla Prickett, third baseman Janelle Allison, center fielder Becca Bachman, catcher Amanda O'Toole and outfielder Tara Conley.
The pitching staff was anchored by sophomore Lacie Lautner and freshman Alysa Fairman, who shared mound duties throughout the year.
TJ played in what was of the best regular-season games in the WPIAL this spring, an 8-7 win in 14 innings by rival West Mifflin against the Lady Jaguars.
“I think that game was our turning point (this season),” Karcher said.
Lautner took over as the No. 1 starter down the home stretch of the schedule and into the postseason.
Thomas Jefferson defeated No. 4 Knoch, 3-2; No. 5 Trinity, 3-1; and No. 1 Greensburg Salem, 4-3; in advancing to the WPIAL Class AAA finals.
The team's catalyst was sophomore shortstop Rachel Bowers.
As the leadoff batter in the TJ lineup, Bowers hit .438 during the regular season and led the club in at-bats (64), hits (28) and runs (14), while strking out only twice.
“Rachel is an absolute dream to coach,” Harcher said. “She has a positive attitude all the time, works extremely hard, and wants the extra reps on the defensive side.
“She is the best leadoff hitter any team can ask for. She is smart in the game of softball; academically talented as well.”
Bowers logged a .937 fielding percentage, with 24 putouts and 25 assists, during the regular season.
Emily Scheidter, a sophomore designated player, led the way offensively with a team-best .441 batting average.
“Emily is a strong stick at the plate,” Karcher said. “I have a tremendous confidence in her when she's at the plate (with) runners in scoring position.”
Lindsay Kalup, a freshman right fielder, also hit .385 for the Lady Jaguars, while Lauren Herazo, a junior left fielder, batted .304 during the regular season.
Other leading hitters included Allison (.283), Bachman (.283), Prickett (.272), sophomore second baseman Megan Fitzgerald (.269), junior outfielder Emma Hedrick and freshman prospect Sydney Flinn.
TJ's starting lineup in the WPIAL finals consisted of: Bowers (shortstop), Prickett (first base), Allison (third base), Herazo (left field), Scheidter (designated player), Kalup (right field), Fitzgerald (second base), sophomore Bayli Moon (second base), Bachman (center field), Lautner (pitcher) and O'Toole (catcher).
Bailee Roller, a junior infielder, and sophomore outfielders Taylor Covelli and Gia Gambino rounded out the TJ squad.
TJ ended up with a 16-7 overall record, which included a 5-1 mark in the playoffs.
Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.