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WPIAL softball teams learn pitching trumps all in deep playoff runs

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 9:57 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Deer Lakes' Tiffany Edwards (left) shakes hands with Sierra Sarver during the WPIAL Class AA softball championship Thursday, May 29, 2014, at Cal (Pa.)'s Lilley Field.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Neshannock's Madison Shaffer reacts after her team defeated South Side during the WPIAL A softball championships on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at California University of Pennsylvania's Lilley Field.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Deer Lakes' Tiffany Edwards delivers a pitch against Freeport during their game at the No Offseason Sports complex in Culmerville on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.

Shaler softball coach Skip Palmer was eating breakfast at Eat ‘n Park with his assistant coaches Tuesday morning when talk turned to a topic many around the WPIAL are still trying to digest.

Seriously, not a single area baseball or softball team reached Friday's PIAA finals?

“When you have a one-game (series) to move on, it's tough. Anything can happen,” Palmer said. “It just so happened the WPIAL didn't make it this year. I'm not going to panic. I think the WPIAL will be back next year.”

It's the first time since 1997 that no WPIAL team has made the PIAA softball finals after the final two teams, Neshannock (Class A) and Greensburg Salem (Class AAA), fell in the state semifinals Monday.

Combining baseball, it's the first time since 1979 that neither a baseball nor a softball team from the WPIAL has advanced to the finals.

“That's amazing to me,” Greensburg Salem coach Jody Morgan said. “I keep thinking the softball around here is better than out east, but I guess I'm wrong.”

Maybe not wrong. Just different. For now.

Dominant pitching can carry any softball team. It just so happened there wasn't a ton of it this season.

Of the 12 teams that advanced to the PIAA tournament, 10 of them lacked a pitcher with experience beyond the WPIAL playoffs.

Neshannock's Madison Shaffer and Deer Lakes' Tiffany Edwards, a pair of juniors, are the only No. 1 pitchers to pitch in the state tournament in back-to-back years.

A season ago, Riverside's Kirsten Wilson, Greensburg Salem's Jayne Oberdorf and Canon-McMillan's Alayna Astuto put up absurd postseason numbers, with Wilson and Astuto leading their team to the PIAA finals. Astuto guided hers to a state title.

All three graduated, and replacing them has proven difficult.

“Obviously if you have an elite pitcher, it's going to help you tremendously,” said Chartiers-Houston coach Tricia Alderson, who led the Bucs to the PIAA finals in 2005 and 2010, winning in '10. “I don't think there's as many. I think the fact that they moved the mound back 3 feet several years back has really changed the game.”

The WPIAL doesn't lack for Division I hitting talent — Google names such as Lorusso, McCartney, Zeremenko, Gray, McGaffic, Oberdorf and DeMatteo — but no longer are there many lights-out hurlers, Morgan said.

“I have not seen a dominating pitcher since (Nicole Sleith) from Yough,” Morgan said. “I haven't seen anyone close to her in three years. We had Jayne (now at Marist). She wasn't even close to Sleith.”

Beaver coach Butch Rousseau had a different take.

“I think the hitting has caught up with the pitching,” Rousseau said.

Not only that, this is high school sports. Which means guarding against complacency can always be a factor.

Take Neshannock. Following his team's 5-4 loss to Claysburg-Kimmel on Monday, Lancers coach Tracy Kimmel recalled a story from when Neshannock followed the 2012 PIAA Class AA championship with a WPIAL title the next spring.

“After winning the state, it was like, ‘Did we win something here today?' ” Kimmel said. “This year meant a lot because we repeated.

“It's so hard to repeat. It really is.”

Canon-McMillan would know. The Big Macs won the PIAA Class AAAA title last year after getting an unreal playoff performance from Astuto: 54 innings, four runs on 26 hits with 53 strikeouts, five walks and a 0.26 ERA.

Shaffer, a Penn State recruit, was outstanding at times for Neshannock.

But the playing field has been evened because of the pitching circle moving back and the abundance of hitting talent in the area, Canon-McMillan coach Michele Moeller said.

The numbers bear that out. In 17 state playoff games involving WPIAL teams, teams averaged 9.2 runs per game. That's up from 6.2 over 25 playoff games a season ago.

“I think there are quality pitchers out there,” Moeller said. “But the hitters are all getting so much better.”

Still, when it comes to playoff softball, WPIAL teams found out the hard way that there's no way to replace elite pitching.

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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