Apollo-Ridge overcomes obstacles, eager for WPIAL Class 2A playoffs

Wednesday, May 11, 2022 | 7:09 PM

Eric Kowalczyk saw promise in his young Apollo-Ridge softball team when the season started in late March.

Despite just one senior, several freshman getting their first taste of the varsity game and other returnees continuing to grow, the first-year Vikings coach has seen growth in his team through a playoff-qualifying season with its share of ups and downs.

“For the season that was given to us, with the rain and a couple of doubleheaders back-to-back in one week and then playing four games in five days, those types of things were a challenge to this group,” he said. “Then you factor in a couple of injuries that have also tested them. But they’ve grown around each other and have supported each other.”

Apollo-Ridge clinched a return trip to the WPIAL playoffs with a stretch of victories over Jeannette, Brentwood and Steel Valley from April 29 through May 3.

Apollo-Ridge is one of 11 softball teams in the Alle-Kiski Valley to punch its tickets to the WPIAL playoffs. The Vikings join Burrell, Highlands, Freeport, Deer Lakes, Valley, Springdale, Leechburg, Plum, Kiski Area and St. Joseph.

The brackets and pairings are scheduled to be released at 4 p.m. Thursday on Trib HSSN.

The Vikings, who finished fourth in Section 2-2A at 6-6, enter the playoffs hoping to stop a three-game losing skid.

They also might head into the postseason without their captain, Bailey Zidek.

The slick-fielding senior shortstop, also the team’s cleanup hitter, suffered a jaw injury in Tuesday’s section loss to Seton LaSalle when she was struck in the face with the ball on a bad hop while attempting to field a sharply hit grounder.

She left the game and was taken to a medical facility. Kowalczyk said Wednesday her status for the playoffs is to be determined.

“We’re going to see who might have to fill that shortstop spot,” Kowalczyk said. “That’s a tough spot to fill, and you’re also replacing her bat in the lineup.”

The injury occurred in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game. Right before, Apollo-Ridge felt it had an inning-ending double play on a catch and double up of a runner.

The umpires, however, credited the Vikings with just one out, and the inning continued.

Apollo-Ridge led 5-2 after the fourth, but Seton La Salle scored six runs in the fifth to take a lead it would not relinquish.

“Bailey’s injury would’ve never happened if the umpire would’ve gotten the call right,” Kowalczyk said. “Bailey left the game, and it kind of took the wind out of our sails. We got down, and it was tough to come back from that.”

Junior pitcher April Earnest and sophomore Jaden Mull each had two hits Tuesday against Seton LaSalle, which has won five of six and defeated Class 3A No. 1 Avonworth, 4-2, on Monday.

“We just had too many errors (Tuesday) that stacked up against us,” Kowalczyk said.

Apollo-Ridge opened its season with a win over Class 3A Derry and added section sweeps of Steel Valley and Jeannette and a split with Brentwood.

The Vikings defeated Seton LaSalle, 7-6, in eight innings April 22. Sophomore Marly Koleno singled in the winning run, and freshman Madison Butler hit her first home run and drove in a pair of runs.

Butler hit for the cycle in a 16-7 win over Steel Valley on May 3. She finished with three RBIs and three runs scored.

Butler missed games early in the season after a concussion suffered in a scrimmage against Shady Side Academy.

“I can’t imagine if she was in for the full season what she could’ve done with the stick she has,” he said.

Kowalczyk hopes his players can regroup and refocus for what he expects to be a challenging first-round playoff opponent.

Apollo-Ridge heads into the playoffs with several players who experienced the postseason last season when the Vikings went 7-5-1 overall and 7-4 in Section 2.

The Vikings hope for a better fate after suffering a 12-2 loss to Chartiers-Houston in last year’s first round.

“I told the girls that there is a new season coming, and there are some who might have to step up into new positions,” Kowalzyk said. “It’s a do-or-die situation, and I think they are willing to step up. But it will be a challenge with what we have in front of us.”

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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