Local teams loaded with talent
Murderers Row is what local softball players and coaches could be calling realigned Section 6-AA by the end of the season.
Section 6-AA, made up of seven Alle-Kiski Valley teams, looks deadly from top to bottom.
Because of realignment, there are three 2002 playoff teams in Section 6-AA. Only the top two teams from each section make the playoffs.
Some dangerous teams will be biting the dust when the playoffs arrive in the middle of May. Section play starts March 31.
Here's a look at the new Section 6-AA:
Burrell , a perennial WPIAL playoff contender, captured the Class AA runners-up trophy last season. The Lady Bucs pride themselves on strong defense, coupled with solid pitching and hitting, and this year doesn't look like an exception.
Deer Lakes qualified for the playoffs for the first time a year ago and welcomes back its pitcher and top hitter and fielder.
Highlands dropped from Class AAA after finishing as a co-section champion with Kiski Area and making the WPIAL playoffs last season. The WPIAL realigns based on enrollment figures every two years.
Valley , which is loaded with pitching, finished third in the section behind Burrell and Deer Lakes and handed Burrell its only section loss last year.
Freeport slogged through a slight slump last season and ended up 7-8 overall. However, the Lady Yellowjackets are just two years removed from an 11-7 record and their fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
Ford City placed fourth in the section with a 6-6 mark and usually challenges the front-runners.
Kittanning also moved down from Class AAA during the offseason. The Lady Wildcats went 8-10 overall last season, just one win short of .500.
Furthermore, Riverview and Apollo-Ridge have been moved to Section 5-A and 7-A, respectively. They went a combined 3-21 in Section 6-AA last year.
"It will be really tough with Highlands and Kittanning coming in, and Apollo-Ridge and Riverview leaving," said Valley coach John Lewis, whose Lady Vikings defeated both section newcomers in nonsection play last year.
Highlands competed in Class AAA in coach Mike Zendarski's first eight seasons.
"I definitely think it's good news (being moved to Class AA)," Zendarski said. "The thing I like is it's seven local teams. There's nothing better than building rivals in high school sports. But the most important thing is this is where we belong from the enrollment standpoint."
With a pair of 2002 section champions in the mix in Highlands and Burrell, the race for the section title should be exciting for local softball fans.
But at this point, all teams are still shaking off rust.
"I think they are going to be good games, very competitive," said first-year Burrell head coach Laurie Kusserow, who served as an assistant for four years. "Our girls really haven't said too much about who we're playing. They are anxious to get started with the season. They are concentrating on their own ball."
Nothing is a given.
Burrell and Highlands must replace their pitcher. Sophomore Kelly Olearchick appears to be Jackie Paulice's successor at Burrell, while sophomore Katie Munshower will take over for Stephanie Carnes at Highlands.
Ford City must overcome a devastating injury. Standout catcher Melissa Schrecengost, who hit .442 last season, is expected to miss her senior campaign after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament during basketball season.
At Valley, it will be interesting to see who will emerge as the starting pitcher. Juniors Katie Francart and Julia Stiffler could start for many teams, and freshman Erica Felack is a member of a heralded freshman class.
Valley lost many games by two or fewer runs last year. An improved offense could push the Lady Vikings into the playoffs.
Also locally in Class AA, Knoch will compete in a small five-team section.
In addition to the Lady Knights, Section 2-AA includes Mars, North Catholic, Northgate and Riverside. Mars and Riverside were WPIAL Class AA quarterfinalists last year. Knoch went 6-6 in section and 7-8 overall last year.
In Class AAA, Kiski Area might contend for the WPIAL title, thanks to the arm of senior pitcher Kelsey Knapp and a talented supporting cast.
Last year, Knapp struck out 219 batters in 129 innings and batted .309 as the Lady Cavaliers advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals.
However, Kiski Area lost some veteran players to graduation, including outfielder Nola Hessom, who led the team with a .404 batting average.
If the Lady Cavaliers can put together a decent offense to support Knapp, they could make a run in the playoffs.
Kiski Area will compete in Section 1-AAA with Franklin Regional, Indiana, Latrobe, Norwin and Penn-Trafford, which means plenty of travel time for the Lady Cavaliers.
In Section 4-AAA, Plum and Fox Chapel will battle it out with Gateway, Oakland Catholic, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills. The section alignment is the same as last year, when Plum, Oakland Catholic and Woodland Hills tied with 7-3 records for the section title.
Plum returns six starters, including pitcher and strikeout artist Jen Cardinale.
In Class A, Leechburg looks to rebound from a slight fall.
The Lady Blue Devils finished 6-4 in section and 8-7 overall and made the playoffs. But they had their streak of consecutive section titles snapped at 19.
With the return of senior pitcher Jen Kulick, the Lady Blue Devils could become a major factor in the playoffs again. In Kulick's sophomore year, they went to the semifinals. When she missed the entire 2002 season with a torn ACL, they were defeated in the first round.
Melissa Geer provides Leechburg with another strong bat. Geer led the team with a .432 batting average last year.
Leechburg will compete in Section 7-A with Apollo-Ridge, St. Joseph , Elderton, Jeannette and West Shamokin.
St. Joseph went winless in section play last year but did register one victory.
Springdale is the other local team in Section 5-A with Riverview. They will compete against Brentwood, Ellis, Mt. Alvernia, Serra Catholic and Shady Side Academy.
Springdale finished third with a 5-5 record in Section 5-A last season. Additional Information:
Softball previewValley News Dispatch Softball Preseason Fab 5
1. Kiski Area (13-4)
2. Burrell (15-5)
3. Plum (14-7)
4. Leechburg (8-7)
5. Deer Lakes (11-5)
Others to watch: Valley (10-7), Highlands (12-6), Freeport (7-8).
Local players to watch
Mindy Beale, Sr., 2B, Highlands.
Jen Cardinale, Sr., P, Plum.
Melissa Cashell, Jr., 3B, Burrell.
Jaime Clark, Sr., 2B, Plum.
Katie Francart, Jr., P-OF, Valley.
Melissa Geer, Jr., SS, Leechburg.
Kristen Hemingway, Sr., C, Highlands.
Amy Hillman, Sr., P, Deer Lakes.
Jen Kulick, Sr., P, Leechburg.
Kelsey Knapp, Sr., P, Kiski Area.
Jen Kowalkowski, Sr., SS, Deer Lakes.
Leslie Pavetto, Jr., 2B, Burrell.
Katie Rapp, Jr., OF, Burrell.
Janelle Sanders, Sr., 1B, Ford City.
Julia Stiffler, Jr., OF-P, Valley.