Crew of returning starters ready to lead Plum softball to success in Section 1-5A

Sunday, March 19, 2023 | 11:01 AM

It was termed as an up-and-down season for the Mustangs.

Plum’s softball team advanced to the WPIAL playoffs for the third consecutive year in 2022, but the Mustangs could muster no better than a 7-12 record by season’s end.

“I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a rebuilding year, but we did have four new starters and we had some injuries to key players early in the year,” coach Phil DiLonardo said. “In turn, we had to make some moves that had a cascading effect to the lineup and put players in positions they weren’t necessarily expecting to be playing at the beginning of the season. Once everyone healed and everyone settled in again, we had some success.

“I always have high expectations for my teams and this year is no different. I expect to challenge everyone in our new section even though we will have a number of new starters and six underclassmen in the lineup. We have a good group of returning players and a big freshman class coming in, including two pitchers, and I am excited to see how it all meshes together this year in our new section.”

The Plum girls were 13-4 and 15-4 and section champions in their two previous seasons.

Last year, they started out 1-7, went 6-4 in their next 10 games, and won four of their last five on their regular-season schedule.

Plum faced a must-win situation in the season’s final week, and the Mustangs clinched a playoff spot with a 5-7 record in Section 1 thanks to a 6-0 victory over rival Penn Hills.

“Basically, what I told them was our playoffs started that day,” DiLonardo said. “We needed to have that game to get into the playoffs, and the girls responded.

“The girls played really well down the stretch to get to that point. They persevered through a lot of stuff. Their battle, heart and determination to get us to that point was huge, even moreso than being in the playoffs. It also was a lesson for the younger kids that getting to the playoffs isn’t easy. You have to put the work in.”

A group of six seniors — Jaralyn Kincaid, Maura Marston, Cassidy Starr, Ashley Polakovic, Shianne Walker and Jenna Nardo — graduated from last year’s club.

An important impact player for Plum in 2023 is expected to be senior Makenzie Lang, who battled shoulder issues last season while splitting time between pitching and as the designated player. Lang led the team offensively with a .442 batting average (19 for 43), six home runs, 19 runs scored and 14 RBIs.

She will focus on playing first base this season.

“Makenzie is moving back to first base, which is her natural position, instead of pitching this year,” DiLonardo said. “We have two freshmen who will handle most of the pitching duties.”

Sophomore Danielle Pici made her varsity debut at catcher and pitcher last season, hitting .392 with four home runs and a team-leading 18 RBIs. She will anchor the infield at her catcher position this spring.

“Dani was a pleasant surprise for us,” DiLonardo said. “It’s sometimes tough as a freshman just to get into a starting lineup, but to produce like she did, I thought she had a great year, and her future is really bright.”

Senior outfielder Kendall James (.340) was an honorable mention all-section selection at second base last spring, as were Lang and Pici at their respective positions.

Other returning starters for the Mustangs are senior outfielder Taylor Lorish, who hit .327 last season, sophomore outfielder Bella Tavella and junior infielder Madelyn Wagner.

“Madelyn started a number of games last year in a few different positions (DP, 1B, 3B),” DiLonardo said. “She played wherever we needed her.

“Bella will take over for Maura Marston in center field.”

Also looking to make their presence felt are senior outfielder Talia Reese and junior infielder Alaina Starr.

Plum’s fifth-year coach likes what he’s witnessed so far from the freshmen on the team.

“I have watched our freshmen for the last two years in junior high,” DiLonardo said, “and I like what I see from them as a group. They work hard and a lot of them will see playing time as freshmen.

“Two in particular, Riley Stephans and Kenzie Marotta, will see a lot of time in the circle.”

Two other top freshman prospects are infielder Jaiden Gentile and C/IF Liana Yusko.

The Mustangs’ outfield appears set with James in left, Tavella in center and Lorish in right.

“We are fortunate to have an all-turf field so we were able to take advantage of the great weather we had in February and got a lot of defensive work that we wouldn’t normally get,” DiLonardo said. “The outfielders especially liked it.

“Hitting is always high on the girls’ list so they have been putting in a lot of time there, as well.”

Plum is a member of Section 1-5A again this season along with Fox Chapel, North Hills, Oakland Catholic, Penn Hills and Shaler.

“We are going to see some very good teams early on in both our section and our nonsection schedule (Seneca Valley, Franklin Regional),” DiLonardo said. “I expect us to be competitive and hard working. I want to see us compete to the best of our abilities and not be apprehensive of playing anyone.”

DiLonardo is assisted by Angelina Akins and pitching coach Julie DiLonardo. He said Shaler and North Hills are the teams to beat in the section.


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