A-K Valley softball preview: Realignment freshens local matchups

Thursday, March 16, 2023 | 6:45 PM

To Katie Armstrong, it seems like just yesterday the Burrell softball team was making its run in the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs en route to a 14-3 final record.

“It was so cool to see what we did because we were so young to start the season with a number of freshmen in starting positions,” Armstrong said.

“But we stuck together and grew and improved against so many really good teams. We were small in numbers, but we practiced hard and came into every game confident we could win.”

The Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year for 2022 was instrumental in a rather youthful Burrell team’s march to third place in WPIAL Class 4A and a trip to the state quarterfinals. Armstrong pitched every inning for the Bucs last year and faced 437 batters, surrendered just 44 hits, 17 walks and three earned runs and struck out 257 batters.

She, along with VND first-team selection Pyper Ferres (sophomore, second base), hopes to lead a Burrell squad, with eight of nine starters back, to another strong postseason run.

“We’re excited for everyone who came back, and we have a group of really talented freshman who come in hoping to help the team. It’s exciting.”

Burrell and the other Alle-Kiski Valley teams are ready to kick off the regular season, which is scheduled to begin Friday. Realignment for the next two-year cycle has created a lot of interesting pairings and matchups this spring.

Burrell and Freeport dropped down to Class 3A and join Deer Lakes and Valley in Section 1 along with defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A champ Avonworth and Shady Side Academy.

Fox Chapel and North Hills, Section 3-5A co-champions last year, are back together in section play and join Plum, Penn Hills, Shaler and Oakland Catholic.

Plum, a Class 5A playoff qualifier last year, returns five starters, including VND all-stars Dani Pici (sophomore, catcher/infield) and Makenzie Lang (senior, pitcher/first base).

Kiski Area, which tied Franklin Regional for second place (9-3) in Section 1-5A last season behind WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up Armstrong (23-5, 12-0), welcomes back six starters including VND second-team selections in senior shortstop Mackenzie Favero and senior pitcher Hannah Simpson.

The Cavaliers will face Armstrong and Franklin Regional again while welcoming WPIAL Class 5A runner-up and PIAA semifinalist Penn-Trafford into the section fold along with Latrobe and Gateway.

Highlands and Knoch will do battle in a revamped Section 1-4A. The Golden Rams (10-6, 8-2) and Knights (9-10, 5-5) both made the playoffs last year but fell in the first round.

Highlands senior catcher Kassidy Cambal recently committed to St. Vincent.

Knoch welcomes back six starters to go along with some key newcomers in the lineup.

Deer Lakes, the defending Section 1-3A champion, finished 14-6 overall last year, reached the WPIAL title game before falling to Avonworth and went 1-1 in the PIAA playoffs.

Despite several starters lost to graduation, the Lancers have a core group back which includes VND first-team all-star Maddie Kee (junior, pitcher) and second-team pick Anna Bokulich (senior, second base).

“It’s exciting to see what we are able to do coming back,” said Deer Lakes coach Rick Cerra, whose team has made the playoffs 11 years in a row.

“It’s also exciting to have teams like Freeport and Burrell back in our section with all of the history there. And to have a team the caliber of Avonworth in the section and to continue to play Valley and Shady Side, it will make for some really fun and competitive games. There should be a lot of good softball.”

Freeport, with junior pitcher Sydney Selker, a second-team VND all-star, back in the fold, as well as fellow starters Aimee Heasley (second base/outfield), Abby DeJidas (shortstop) and Megan Grolemund (outfield), hopes to make the WPIAL playoffs for a 13th straight season.

The Yellowjackets were Class 4A quarterfinalists in 2022.

Valley, under the leadership of veteran coach Carrol Perroz, hopes to make it three playoff trips in a row. Experience returns throughout the lineup, and the Vikings, 7-7 overall and 6-2 in Section 1-3A last year, welcome back several starters including VND first-team pitcher Morgan Dunkel, a senior, and second-team senior shortstop Leah Taliani.

While teams such as Burrell, Freeport and Deer Lakes hope to keep their double-digit playoff-appearance streaks alive, none is able to hold a candle to Leechburg’s WPIAL record of 35 consecutive seasons making the postseason.

Larry Troutman Jr., a Highlands graduate, takes over the Blue Devils after Debbie Fleming stepped down following eight seasons at the helm.

Troutman, who makes his high school coaching debut this spring, owns 12 years of AAU travel softball experience.

In Class 2A, Apollo-Ridge is going after a sixth straight playoff appearance after finishing fourth in Section 2 last season.

Leechburg returns seven of nine starters from last year including senior pitcher Anna Cibik and fellow senior Karli Mazak (CF/3B), who earned VND first-team honors last season. The Blue Devils were runners-up to Springdale in Section 3-1A last year and made the WPIAL quarterfinals, finishing 9-6 overall.

The Alle-Kiski Valley will have five new coaches with Ron DeJidas (Freeport), Kasey Wolford (Highlands), Joe Giacomin (Springdale) and Don Noonan (St. Joseph) joining Troutman in area dugouts.

Giacomin, with extensive coaching experience at the high school level with Penn-Trafford, Norwin, Jeannette, Woodland Hills and Penn Hills, as well as with club travel teams, takes over a Springdale program that saw seven of its 12 players from last year’s section-champion and WPIAL-semifinalist squad lost to graduation.

Giacomin is looking to foster growth in what he calls a young and inexperienced team around three returning players in sophomores Ashlyn Ferdebar and Elyssia Radovitch and junior Kaden Mizak.

“We have to keep this team together and on the field,” he said. “We want to get through this year and grow. We have some younger players coming up, too, who can really help the team down the road. I think the future is bright.”

St. Joseph (8-10, 6-4) joined the AK Valley playoff party last year, its second trip in a row, and again will face Springdale and Leechburg in section play.

Riverview will not field a varsity team in 2023 because of low numbers. Only four players expressed interest in playing this spring, athletic director Corey Thomas said.

The program also will be required to sit out 2024, the second year of the current two-year alignment cycle.

Riverview finished 0-10 last season, and three of the losses were forfeits.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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