Scan the diamond at a Pitt-Johnstown softball game, and there are instant flashbacks to Westmoreland County WPIAL softball circa 2017.
Four county schools often are represented on the lineup card. Middle infielders from the area turn double plays, and there is even an all-local battery.
Five of the top players from that ’17 crop, now college sophomores, are making a significant impact at UPJ while molding the future of the program.
Around the horn it’s Stacey Walling (Hempfield) doing the catching, many games for right-hander Ashley Pagliei (Latrobe); Bree Ginther (Penn-Trafford) at third base; Olivia Porter (Southmoreland) at shortstop; and Ali Belgiovane (Hempfield) at second.
It’s a group whose collective strength, aside from obvious traits that make them Division II players, is their familiarity with one another.
“Playing with them on previous teams and then playing with them now, I am used to their style of play, and we mesh well together, which makes the game we love fun,” said Porter, who played four sports in high school.
Porter is hitting .282 with 17 runs, 29 hits, two home runs and 10 RBIs for UPJ (16-16, 6-8), which was in fourth place in the PSAC Central.
The team was scheduled to play two games at Seton Hill earlier this week, but rainouts scratched the nonconference games.
“We are all very comfortable playing together,” said Belgiovane, who has a .259 average with 22 hits. “Growing up playing with and against each other in travel ball and high school ball has definitely made us very close. It’s a great feeling having such a close team and a family atmosphere.”
Belgiovane started 34 games last season and batted .250.
Porter and Walling were early travel teammates. Belgiovane and Walling later played on the same travel team before Walling switched teams and became teammates with Ginther.
Fourth-year Mountain Cats coach Niki (Cognigni) Pecora knew it was a good idea to tap into the talent in Westmoreland.
“There is a funny story,” Pecora said. “While I was recruiting Ali, Stacey and Bree, they had a playoff game. It was Hempfield vs. Penn-Trafford. As their game finished up, Southmoreland was warming up for the next game, and that is how I saw Olivia Porter. This group of girls is very special, and I am excited to see what the next few years hold for them together.”
Pecora said Belgiovane has been a natural leader.
“Ali is a such a smooth player,” the coach said. “She is always looking to get better. She works hard every single day and pushes the rest of the team to do the same. Ali has impacted our program immediately as our second baseman and continues to put pressure on the opposing team while batting.”
Porter, on the other hand, was described as a game-changer by her coach. She started 34 games as a freshman and hit .278 with 30 hits and 17 runs.
“She is very athletic and has also impacted this program immediately,” she said. “Olivia just makes things happen for us on offense with her quickness and athleticism.”
Ginther has become a staple in the infield. She has a .253 average and nine runs. She also saw significant time as a freshman.
“I am really proud of how Bree stepped into her role on the team this season,” Pecora said. “She has grown significantly as a softball player, and it’s really showing. Bree is locking down third base very well and offensively putting the ball in play extremely hard.”
Walling brings power to the plate but has anchored the defense behind it. Like Belgiovane, she can provide leadership having played on WPIAL and PIAA championship teams. Walling hit a pair of homers last season and made 25 starts.
“Stacey makes the game extremely fun and brings a lot of energy,” Pecora said.
And don’t forget about Pagliei, who has a 3-4 record to go with a 5.29 ERA. She has pitched five complete games.
That after limited action as a freshman (2-2, 30 2/3 innings, eight starts).
“Ashley’s poise helps our team succeed,” Pecora said. “She doesn’t let much bother her on the mound, and she is continuing to grow and get stronger mentally and physically for our program.”
Belgiovane said there rarely is a dull moment during games. If they aren’t fun, maybe they shouldn’t be happening.
“We are all very loud and love to dance in the dugout to each other’s walk-up songs,” she said. “Also, we like to wear props like funny sunglasses and hats in the dugout. We always play well whenever we enjoy the games and just focus on having fun.”
Stats aside, the fabric of the local group is chemistry, and it has been contagious.
“Our team is very close. … We are family,” Porter said. “We spend most of our time together when we are not in class, practice, or a game. I can guarantee you will see us out to eat, shopping or even watching a Netflix series together as a team.”