Apollo-Ridge softball team, with small roster and new coach, starts to find its footing

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Wednesday, April 17, 2024 | 5:05 PM


The Apollo-Ridge softball team began the season with 11 players.

There was one recent addition to the group, but it has been all hands on deck for a team with aspirations to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs for the seventh season in a row.

It also has been a get-to-know-you experience between the players and first-year coach Ashtin Kirkwood and her staff.

“I didn’t know what positions the girls played until coming in and talking with them,” said Kirkwood, a West Shamokin graduate who played at Thiel.

“Some of them tried different positions than what they might have done last year. Even now, we’re still working on that. It’s been a work in progress with finding the best lineups with only the 12 players and also how best to utilize the ones who are on the bench. We’ve talked to them about being ready to move around or make changes to help the team.”

Apollo-Ridge was 2-3 overall and 2-1 in Section 2-2A heading into a section matchup Wednesday at home against Steel Valley.

The Vikings and Ironmen play again Friday in Munhall.

Apollo-Ridge is in playoff position with a majority of the section games to be played. The Vikings own a key section victory over Greensburg Central Catholic, 6-3, from last week, and they routed Ellis School before a tough 11-7 loss to section leader Serra Catholic on Monday.

Kirkwood, who was hired in September, said there was a lot of patience involved through the fall and winter until the full team came together right before preseason practices began. Several on the team also play soccer, volleyball and basketball.

“There was that waiting game,” she said. “It was exciting to get the season started and see where all the players would fit on the field and in the lineup. It is a big difference from playing to now coaching. I have one of my old teammates (from West Shamokin) and my dad helping coach the team.

“We’re seeing the closer bonds forming, and we see each other’s potential more and more as the season goes on.”

Despite collecting only five hits, Apollo-Ridge was able to double up GCC on April 9. Junior third baseman Madison Butler doubled, senior center fielder Malea Veneziani tripled and drove in a run and senior shortstop Cam Kowalczyk got on base three times and knocked in a run.

Last year’s road matchup with GCC, at Seton Hill, was a wild affair. Wind, rain and even snow made things interesting. The length of the game — it started at 6 p.m. — caused the umpires to call it after six innings because of darkness with GCC leading 13-12.

The rematch with GCC in Spring Church is at 4 p.m. Monday.

“We knew they had lost quite a few players from last year, and they also are figuring some things out, but they are still a really good team, and that was a big win for us,” said Kowalczyk, a four-year starter and Waynesburg commit who is one of four seniors on the team along with Veneziani, second baseman Jaden Mull and outfielder Makenna Syster.

“We were still working on our hitting, but we did what we needed to do from the plate to get enough runs.”

The Vikings broke open a 2-2 game in the fifth with four runs. The A-R defense helped out sophomore pitcher Jocelyn Snyder by committing just one error.

“One of the girls said it might have been the (program’s) first-ever win against GCC,” Kirkwood said. “It was a big confidence boost with their first win of the season.”

Snyder has taken on the full-time pitching role this season.

She went the distance against the Centurions, surrendering seven hits and five walks while striking out 12.

“She has stepped up so much from the first scrimmage,” Kirkwood said. “She’s gained speed and is hitting her spots a little more reliably. She’s out there grinding every day.”

Serra Catholic on Monday built a 7-2 lead before Apollo-Ridge rallied to within one at 7-6. But the Eagles, who entered a scheduled matchup with GCC on Wednesday 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the section, pulled away late for the victory.

Kowalczyk went 4 for 4 with three doubles; Butler doubled twice, homered and knocked in four; and Mull also was 4 for 4.

“It was a close game,” Kowalczyk said. “We made a few mistakes that hurt us, but we hung in there. We’re a little school, but we have big hearts. We never quit, and that showed (against Serra).”

Butler said the Vikings’ best is yet to come.

“We’re definitely getting better and getting closer each day,” Butler said. “Everyone has contributed in their own way. Everyone adapted well to the new system and what coach (Kirkwood) was expecting from us. We’ve worked hard to become a good team.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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