Deer Lakes softball to be tested in quest for 7th straight section title

Monday, March 12, 2018 | 9:42 PM

Katelynn Blair remembers traveling to Penn State with the Deer Lakes softball team in 2015, when the Lancers ultimately finished as the PIAA runner-up.

As one of only three remaining players from that team, Blair and classmates Casey Beuchel and Dani Huffman will need to do their part if Deer Lakes is hoping for another championship run.

One of the most consistent WPIAL softball programs in recent years faces uncertainty at the start of the season after the graduation of nearly half its starting lineup, but the Lancers hope enough remains for them to make their typical deep postseason run.

“This year is a rebuilding year for us,” Blair said. “We need our underclassmen to step up and fill the shoes of the seniors we lost last year. Our coaches have been working hard with them. They're super, super competitive, and they work really hard, which I love to see because I can see the drive in them, and I know they want to be successful. I know that will pay off come game time.”

Deer Lakes advanced to the WPIAL championship game for the fifth time in six seasons in 2017 — the Lancers have two titles in that span — and after losing to Ellwood City in that game, they rebounded to advance to the second round of the PIAA tournament.

But as often happens with successful teams, a core of significant contributors graduated — in this case, starters Brittany Dengler (third base), Becca Hoffman (second base), Shae Robson (center field) and Kristen Rudy (pitcher).

So once again coach Craig Taliani finds himself in the position of reloading, one he's very familiar with.

“Any high school program that had success, they have to have some young kids coming up to step in,” Taliani said. “That's the nature of high school. You're losing good players each year, but hopefully, you're able to bring on good replacement players.”

Deer Lakes returns its two biggest bats, in Blair — the 2017 Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year with a .672 average, 17 doubles, nine homers and 38 RBIs — and Huffman, who hit .607 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. Sophomore catcher Makayla Blair hit .469 with 22 RBIs.

But the responsibility of setting the table will fall to the Lancers' other returning contributors, including Beuchel, junior Katrina Taliani and sophomore Maura Cerra.

“Obviously, (Katelynn Blair and Huffman are) good hitters and they're experienced, so we hope that they can continue to contribute as much as they have in the past,” Craig Taliani said. “But they need a supporting cast. That's just as important because you have to have people to protect them. Quality pitchers are going to try to work around them as much as possible, and that means other people are going to have to step up.”

Rudy stepped into the pitching role a few games into the 2017 season, so replacing her will be key. Taliani said Katelynn Blair, Cerra and sophomore Marleen Meyer could all take the ball in the circle.

“Pitching has never been my primary position, but I've been pitching since I was 10 years old,” Blair said. “It's definitely going to be a different role, but one thing that definitely helps me is having my sister be my catcher. It's really nice to have her there.”

Deer Lakes won its sixth consecutive section title last season, but Taliani said the Lancers face a challenge to make it seven in a Section 1-3A that includes returning playoff teams in Burrell, Freeport and South Allegheny and potentially improved East Allegheny and Valley squads.

“I know I probably say it every year, but right now we're a work in progress,” Taliani said. “Until you throw some pitches and take some swings, it's all kind of guesswork.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.


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