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Senior pitcher guides South Park softball to state championship

| Thursday, June 22, 2017, 6:15 p.m.
South Park's pitcher Justine Dean releases the ball against Southmoreland during WPIAL softball playoffs at California University, on Friday, May 26, 2017.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
South Park's pitcher Justine Dean releases the ball against Southmoreland during WPIAL softball playoffs at California University, on Friday, May 26, 2017.

They opened the season with seven consecutive victories, and were 10-1 at the end of April.

They breezed to a section championship with a 10-0 record.

They won 11 of the final 12 games on their schedule, which included a 6-1 playoff run and the first PIAA title in softball in school history.

They finished with a 21-3 overall record.

But perhaps the most amazing fact about the South Park softball team is that there was only one senior in the Eagles' starting lineup — Justine Dean, a right-handed pitcher.

“Justine was at her best all season,” coach Larry Mercurio said. “She was focused and competitive each and every game. As a coach, I couldn't be more proud of that kid. She is a different pitcher than she was two years ago. She is a leader now, and she wants to win every game.”

South Park defeated Pine Grove, 4-2, in the PIAA Class 3A championship game at Penn State as Dean struck out two in a complete-game performance. The Eagles' standout hurler allowed just four runs in four PIAA playoff games, and on the season, posted a 1.79 earned-run average with 131 strikeouts.

“This was definitely the best season we have had in the past four years,” said Dean, who plans to attend Mercyhurst North East, where she will continue her softball career. “Winning the championship meant a lot to all of us, and it was very exciting being the first time South Park has won states. It was also very sad for me because it was my last year playing high school softball. I'm definitely going to miss them all next year.”

Katlyn Pavlick, a junior third baseman, was a major offensive force for Dean and the South Park team.

“It was an exciting experience for all of us — players, fans and coaches,” Pavlick said. “We all worked very hard for this and I believe it was well-deserved. Justine pitched very well knowing that she had a great defense behind her.

“It was a great way to top off Justine's high school career. It was a good experience being her teammate for the past three years and watching her develop as a pitcher, and especially as a leader. She worked hard over the years and was a key part in all of our success as a team.”

Kaitlyn Morrison anchored the Eagles' infield from her shortstop position, and was a leading contributor offensively.

“We wanted to send our only senior, Justine, out in style,” Morrison said.

Dean, Pavlick and Morrison were joined in the Eagles' starting lineup by junior Laura Shinavski (RF); sophomores Jess Dean (1B), Charlyn Blackburn (C) and Jill Davison (DH); and freshmen Taylor Glowa (2B), Grace Albitz (CF) and Chelsea Carozza (LF).

“Winning this (championship) with girls we've played softball with since we first started playing (the game) is a big accomplishment,” said Jess Dean, Justine's younger sister. “It means a lot to me also because it was my sister's senior year, and letting her have that chance to win before she goes off to college means a lot to both of us.”

Mercurio anticipates that the younger Dean will follow aptly in her sister's footsteps in the pitcher's circle.

“Justine is in a good place going off to Mercyhurst North East, and we are already excited about next season,” Mercurio said. “Jess was an intricate part of our success this season as our leadoff batter/first baseman/backup pitcher, and we know that she is going to step right in her sister's shoes.”

Pavlick is looking forward to another championship season at South Park in 2018.

“We hope to return the entire team, except Justine, of course, since she is graduated,” Pavlick said. “I'm sure Jess will fill the role as our pitcher just as well. Although we did not have to use her much this year, when she did pitch she did just as well as Justine.

“This year's freshmen already have a championship and playoff experience under their belt, which we hope to repeat next season. Justine's role as a big hitter will need to be filled, which I'm sure the upcoming freshmen will work hard to fill. I think if we stick to what we have been doing, we will dominate next season.”

Morrison believes the Eagles are well-stocked with talent.

“We have eight starters returning next year,” Morrison said, “and a couple of players who contributed from the bench who will be fighting for more playing time. When you lose your pitcher that is always very tough, but we have a lot of confidence in Jessica. She pitched a few nonsection games and JV games this year and did really well.

“But that's next year. We just want to enjoy this one for a while before next year's grind.”

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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