Belle Vernon softball still fighting after injury to top pitcher

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024 | 11:01 AM


Belle Vernon didn’t jump into panic mode when ace pitcher Talia Ross was injured, instead pausing first to let the moment breathe.

Remember, slugger and shortstop Ava Zubovic already was out long term with a torn ACL, so the shock from that preseason news helped to brace the Leopards for another uppercut.

But enough is enough, the girls thought.

Another crushing blow to the team’s morale was painful. Ross was on the rise as one of Class 4A’s top arms, and the defending WPIAL champion Leopards planned to follow her lead back to the playoffs.

The path to get there is going to look a little different now.

Belle Vernon was 7-1 (2-1 in Section 2) through eight games.

“It’s definitely a change without her on the field with us,” junior catcher Mia Zubovic said. “When Talia first got hurt, she didn’t act like she hurt it as bad as she did. Actually me and my sister were the ones to take her to the trainer. We were also the first ones to know the severity of her injury.”

A ruptured Achilles tendon Ross suffered during a practice will sideline her for the season.

“The first thing as a team we can control is our energy,” Zubovic said. “Talia brought so much energy to the dugout, always keeping girls up, making them laugh, dancing and more. Our other pitchers have not had as much varsity experience, so as a catcher I am going to do everything I can to make them feel confident as a pitcher and work with them as much as I can.”

Belle Vernon is ranked No. 2 in 4A and still could challenge for a repeat behind a solid lineup.

“I think the injury has motivated the girls to compete and step up for the team in different ways,” veteran coach Tom Rodriguez said. “We have been preaching togetherness and unity since day one, and they don’t want to fall apart or disappoint Talia. The mood of our practice and games have been positive in that aspect, and everyone wants to fight for a successful season.”

Top-ranked Elizabeth Forward (4-0, 2-0) magnified Ross’s absence with a sound, 10-0 win over Belle Vernon earlier in the week. The Leopards were shaken but not undone.

“This just means we have to work even more as one whole to accomplish the goals we set in the beginning of the season,” Mia Zubovic said.

Rodriguez said a number of girls have stepped up to fill the voids left by Ross and Ava Zubovic. Ross was hitting .444.

Sophomore Lily Crawford has taken over in the circle and is gaining experience quickly.

The other usual suspects are leading the offensive charge, including senior Grace Sokol (.600, 10 RBIs), junior Lauren VanDivner (.444), Mia Zubovic (7 RBIs) and junior Katie Sokol (.500, 7 RBIs).

But the “next wave” is doing their part, too.

Sophomores Maddie Grisnik, Sydney Callaway and Taylor Beech are making contributions, and freshman Mailey Hayes (.500, 2 HR) is batting leadoff and playing shortstop.

“It’s still early in the season, and we have time to move things around and figure out how to be a winning team without her,” Rodriguez said. “Talia is stepping up as an amazing leader from the sidelines and will definitely help keep the team morale up. Belle Vernon softball always intends to be a contender, and the girls are motivated to rally around our injured seniors to make them proud.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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