After winning 6 straight section titles, Deer Lakes softball in unfamiliar position

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 | 8:21 PM

A small part of Deer Lakes' post-practice conversation Wednesday centered around the team's uniform choice for Thursday's Section 1-3A softball tilt against Burrell.

The Lancers will go green after losing in gray too often earlier this season, hoping a new look will lead to a new result.

Whether it's the uniforms or — more likely — more-difficult-than-expected growing pains, Deer Lakes finds itself in an unfamiliar, precarious position at the season's midpoint. The Lancers (2-4, 1-4), who played in the WPIAL championship game just last season, currently sit outside the playoffs looking in.

“Even ending the year last year, we knew we were going to have to step up to the plate to be where we have been years and years and years,” senior Dani Huffman said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we knew we're Deer Lakes — we try overcoming everything. We knew it was going to be hard, but we did what we needed to do. We'll just keep trying and working hard.”

The current Section 1 standings appear like something of a misprint, given Deer Lakes' fifth-place spot. The Lancers claimed at least a share of the section title each of the past six seasons, won 44 consecutive section games from 2012-16 and appeared in five of the past six WPIAL championship games, winning two.

But the Lancers were hit hard by graduation, losing four senior starters, and are going through the requisite difficulties of replacing them.

“I'll never get used to losing,” coach Craig Taliani said. “It's never easy, it's never fun. But at the same time as a coach, you need to focus on what your team needs you to be the most of. Right now, that's trying to be a positive influence.”

Taliani said outside of one “come-to-Jesus” conversation after a loss, he's focusing on team improvements and believes his players can rally in the second half of the season. After an 11-4 loss to South Allegheny earlier this season, Deer Lakes showed improvement in the rematch Monday, ultimately falling short by two runs.

“I'm not a believer in moral victories — I'll say that right up front — but I am a believer in working to get better and making progress,” Taliani said. “I would say we've made progress the last couple games, even though we've come in on the short end of the scoreboard.

“Like I said from the beginning, I thought we were going to be a work in progress. So I'm not overly surprised at where we are right now, to be honest, but at the same time it's not where we want to be. It's not something that we want to accept. We want to make sure we're getting better each day, each week.”

The Lancers are falling victim to the one-bad-inning curse this season. The Lancers were tied with first-place Freeport through five innings before the Yellowjackets scored six times in the sixth for a 10-4 victory. They led South Allegheny by a run through four innings in their first meeting, but the Gladiators put up six runs in the ensuing inning to coast to the win. A five-run second for South Allegheny in Monday's rematch put Deer Lakes in an early hole it ultimately couldn't climb out of.

“We need to play more fundamentally sound, and we need to leave less people on base,” senior Casey Buechel said. “We do have a lot of (situations where we) left girls on base like a lot of second and third, a lot of bases loaded, even, that we just can't capitalize on. We need to break it open.”

Deer Lakes is leaning on its experienced players — seniors like Katelynn Blair, Buechel and Huffman, who were part of the team's run to the PIAA championship game as freshmen in 2015 — and getting boosts from underclassmen like sophomore Marleen Meyer, who has become the top pitcher in her first year on varsity.

And the Lancers are doing their best to maintain their positivity, ending Wednesday's practice with a target-practice game on the school's football field and debating their uniform choice. With five section games remaining, including a pair against fourth-place Valley and rematches against rivals Burrell and Freeport, the team knows it still has plenty to play for.

“Once you get down, that could bring you down, that you can bring the team down,” Huffman said. “It's not a good, positive attitude. You just need to have that. Even if you make one of the worst plays or anything, you can overcome that.

“We knew it was going to be hard, and we have to keep working.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.


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