After losing ace to graduation, Mt. Pleasant softball eager to prove doubters wrong

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Monday, March 16, 2020 | 1:57 PM


Mt. Pleasant had its 15 minutes of fame last season when it made the MaxPreps national softball rankings.

The Vikings checked in at No. 18 late in the year and went on to play in the WPIAL Class 4A championship game and made the PIAA semifinals.

(They lost both games to sudden rival Elizabeth Forward).

But Vikings junior Mary Smithnosky viewed the attention as more of a distraction than an accolade.

“The expectations overcame us,” the Vikings pitcher and outfielder said. “We we distracted by it. We needed to be more focused.”

Mt. Pleasant finished 19-2 overall and 10-0 in section for the second straight season, ran its section winning streak to 24 and made the postseason for the 14th consecutive year.

Add to that a fourth straight state playoff appearance.

Losing just one senior — a talented one in power pitcher Carolyn Alincic — has the Vikings back in the mix again as one of the favorites in 4A.

“This year we’re more of a team,” Smithnosky said. “Without Carolyn, people will doubt us more. But we’ve been working harder and we’re more focused.”

Eight starters return, including Smithnosky, a Western Michigan commit who will replace Alincic as the ace in the circle.

Alincic went 36-5, led the Vikings to a PIAA title in 2017 and struck out 396 in her career before moving on to Division I Morehead State.

While Smithnosky can deal, she will rely more on her defense, which features sophomore second baseman Katie Hutter and junior shortstop Hannah Gnibus up the middle.

Junior Haylie Brunson, a Pitt recruit, will be at third.

“We’re going to have to find nine outs somewhere else,” coach Chris Brunson said. “With Carolyn, we’ll have to fill that void and leadership. She’d give us 15 or 16 outs (with strikeouts). Now we’ll have to get eight or nine outs another way.”

Which means the defense will have to play a larger role.

“We have a very good defense coming back,” Chris Brunson said. “We were around a .970 fielding percentage last year, which is fantastic.”

Smithnosky, who also could play right field and some first base, is embracing the top pitching role. She also was an offensive force last year, batting .494 with a team-best 38 hits, 12 runs and 14 RBIs.

“Last year I was 80-20 (percentage offense to pitching),” said Smithnosky, who was 4-0 with a 0.23 ERA in 30 innings as a sophomore. “This year I am more 50-50. I have mentally prepared myself and I know I have a strong defense behind me.”

Smithnosky probably won’t be the only pitcher. Sophomore Abby Swank, junior Lexi Puskar and freshman Sophia Smithnosky also could see time in the circle.

“They’ll eat through innings,” Chris Brunson said. “Mary earned that opportunity (to be the No. 1 pitcher).”

Haylie Brunson, Gnibus and Hutter should provide some pop in the lineup. Brunson hit three home runs and drove in 15, while Gnibus homered three times — her 13 extra-base hits led the team — and Hutter batted .442 with 34 hits, including four triples.

“We’ll hit more,” Chris Brunson said. “We’re working on being more aggressive on the bases and getting people into scoring position. Last year, we needed three runs to win a game. This year, we might need five or six.”

Also returning is Seton Hill commit Sydney Kanuch, a senior center fielder; senior first baseman Autumn Shogun; and senior Sidney Overly, a Davis & Elkins commit.

Junior Lexis Shawley and Overly are catchers.

Chris Brunson said positions could be interchangeable based on who is pitching and who is playing well.

A big question mark is junior Courtney Poulich, who is not fully recovered from a leg injury. The Liberty commit is another talented hitter who has played first base in the past.

Senior Rae McNair and freshman Krista Brunson also should factor in somewhere.

Mt. Pleasant will be the favorite in Section 1, but Chris Brunson expects Highlands to be improved.

In Class 4A, he looks for Elizabeth Forward to be the frontrunner, with Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon also giving chase to the title.

The Vikings will play a challenging nonsection schedule that includes Elizabeth Forward, Belle Vernon, Baldwin, Norwin and defending Class 5A state champion Penn-Trafford in the opener.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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