Hempfield freshmen burst into starting lineup, play key roles in playoff run

Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | 6:14 PM

When Tina Madison talked about her team’s prospects and potential strengths at the start of the season, she couldn’t help but mention the emerging talent coming down the pipeline.

The Hempfield softball coach didn’t try to hide anyone, either.

The future is now for a budding group of newcomers.

“There are some freshmen who are going to push for playing time right away,” Madison said. “We have some good ones coming through.”

Three of those players, in particular, have found a home in the starting lineup and have helped the WPIAL Class 6A champion Spartans (19-3) reach the PIAA quarterfinals.

Hempfield plays Downingtown East (21-2), the third-place team in District 1, at 4 p.m. Thursday at Cumberland Valley in Mechanicsburg.

“We knew what we had with those girls,” Madison said. “We wanted to get them comfortable with playing (at the varsity level) because they are impact kids.”

Freshman Ella Berkebile took over the starting catching duties early in the season and brought a strong bat to the order.

Another ninth grader, Claire Mitchell, is a dependable left fielder who jumped to the leadoff spot in the order late in the season.

And who could forget “Lou?”

Lauren Howard, nicknamed “Lou,” also has connected with varsity softball right away, anchoring the left side of the infield and hitting second in the lineup.

“You’re talking about my catcher, left fielder and third baseman,” Madison said. “Those are pretty important spots. These are special kids.”

Howard gave the Spartans a lift with two hits, including a double, and scored three times in a 5-0 win over Mifflin County in the PIAA first round.

“I wasn’t expecting to start right away, but I knew if I worked hard, I could play,” Howard said.

All together, Madison has 10 freshmen, and they join seven sophomores, seven juniors and three seniors.

Madison, who was Tina Skelly when she was a star pitcher for Hempfield from 1998-2001, started when she was a freshman — in left field.

Mitchell tripled in an 8-5, come-from-behind victory over Norwin in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Berkebile went 2 for 4 in that game.

“People were going crazy when I made that change,” Madison said. “But, see, that’s what she can do.”

Howard added an infield single and scored the first run in the WPIAL championship win.

“Lou has made some dynamic plays at third,” Madison said of Howard. “She stops everything. We shifted her from short to third.”

When you’re talking catchers, Hempfield fans who have followed the program in recent years immediately will think of Emma Hoffner, a standout now playing at Ohio University.

Berkebile certainly knows about Hoffner: She wants to be just like her.

“She gives me lessons,” Berkebile said. “She has really helped me a lot with my blocking.”

Hempfield used a cranked-up pitching machine to prepare to face Seneca Valley pitcher Lexie Hames in the WPIAL final. The machine belongs to Berkebile.

“We’re still using it,” she said. “As a freshman, when you get your chance, you want to get in and get more comfortable.”

Mitchell felt honored and excited to take over the No. 1 spot in the batting order.

“I have two older sisters who played here, so I know about the (winning tradition),” Mitchell said. “There are a lot of good players here, and it’s tough to get into the lineup.

“It’s amazing to be a part of it. I am a little more nervous now than at the beginning. I just try to start some rallies.”

Like her predecessor, longtime championship coach Bob Kalp, Madison has an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent developed in West Point Little League and travel softball.

Her job has been to find a lineup that wins with players who are judged not on their class in school but by their ability and value to the team.

“We want to represent District 7 well,’ Madison said. “Our girls are handling it well. They’re ballplayers.”

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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