Favorite status doesn’t faze top softball seeds from Westmoreland County

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Tuesday, May 18, 2021 | 5:52 PM


If the softball playoffs come to pass the way the WPIAL committee foresees — “to chalk,” as they say — there are going to be some celebrations in Westmoreland County.

Three schools — located at home plate, first base and third on a county map — are taking No. 1 seeds into the postseason.

With the brackets in place, those teams will now try to live up to lofty expectations.

“I told the girls at the beginning of the season,” Mt. Pleasant coach Chris Brunson said. “You’ll be ranked No. 1. It’s going to happen. But I have faith that you know how to deal with it.”

Brunson did not say much more. The Vikings (14-3) are the favorite in Class 3A and they know it. The team was ranked No. 18 in the nation two years ago by MaxPreps. Several seniors, who were sophomores then, have been through the pressure before.

“If we play our best, we feel like we can beat anybody,” Vikings junior Katie Hutter said.

The Vikings have one of the most talented lineups in the playoffs, from top to bottom. Mt. Pleasant, which has one WPIAL title, in 2016, the last year before six classifications, opens the playoffs Thursday after a first-round bye.

Penn-Trafford (15-4) also is dealing with life under the heat lamp as the top seed in 5A. The Warriors opened the tournament Tuesday against Hampton, hoping it would be the first step toward their first WPIAL championship. They won the PIAA title in ‘19.

“We had a feeling we’d be the (top seed),” Warriors coach Denny Little said. “But there are a lot of other good teams chasing too. We have to worry about us and what we do. The girls are healthy and ready to go.”

Senior home run hitter Brooke Cleland said the Warriors are playing with perspective.

“Coming into the playoffs, our team is mentally, physically and emotionally prepared, regardless of where we are seeded,” Cleland said. “Receiving the top seed didn’t really faze us, as the seeding is not where our attention is drawn to. We focus on doing our job. That has been our motto for years now.”

The third top seed from the county has never been in the WPIAL playoffs before. Class 2A No. 1 Ligonier Valley (16-1) spent decades in District 6 before joining the WPIAL last year.

The Rams are led by junior pitcher Maddie Griffin, who has thrown nine no-hitters and leads the county with 211 strikeouts. They open Wednesday against California.

“We’re not going to change anything we do,” Rams coach Mark Zimmerman said. “We’re going to stick with what works.”

Ligonier Valley won a District 6 title in 1981 and was a runner-up in ‘13 and ‘17, all in 2A.

Griffin said it will be a one-game-at-a-time approach in their new surroundings.

“In the past, I feel that since we went into playoffs overlooking the first game, we ended up dropping it,” she said. “I’m just hoping we can continue to perform well.”

The pitcher also said the team has accepted the target on its back.

“We’re trying to exceed the expectations that people have of our team,” she said. “It is a lot easier to be the underdog in these games because if you lose, that was the expectation, so being No. 1, the general belief is that you should win it all. While we have confidence that we can win these games, we have little knowledge of the other teams since it is our first year in the WPIAL. We do not have the luxury to overlook anybody.”

Could this year be shades of 2007, ‘11 and ‘18, when three county teams won WPIAL titles? Valley, Belle Vernon and Latrobe won in ‘07; Burrell, Yough and Latrobe followed in ‘11; Southmoreland, Belle Vernon and Hempfield hoisted trophies in ‘18.

Teams from Westmoreland County won at least two titles from 2015-18.

While the top seeds will garner a lot of attention, don’t sleep on the No. 2 seeds.

Norwin (6A) and Latrobe (5A) are dangerous teams tasked with that tag. The Knights (13-2) have one of the top-hitting lineups in the WPIAL and can swing with power. They have never won the WPIAL.

Latrobe (11-4) has pitching depth and offense to match. Remember, coach Bob Kovalcin guided the Wildcats to their only three WPIAL titles in 2007, ‘08 and ‘11. He resigned in ‘12 but returned to the program last year only to see the ‘20 season get canceled because of the pandemic.

“We’re going to go out and do the best we can,” Kovalcin said.

Latrobe began its postseason run Tuesday against Indiana.

And don’t forget about Hempfield, quietly lurking as the No. 3 seed in 6A. The Spartans have won five straight WPIAL titles and a veteran coaching staff remains eager and focused on getting the best out of their players.

Hempfield has seven titles overall. History beckons this postseason run: No team has won six championships in a row.

“A guy who won 1,000 games at the Division II level once said, ‘Remember, it doesn’t matter how far you want to go (in the playoffs),’” Brunson said. “’It’s how far do the kids want to go?’ It comes down to them. If they want it to be done, it will be done.”

Another dangerous team to watch is Southmoreland (9-4), the seventh seed in Class 3A.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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