Hempfield sets championship goals as Westmoreland County teams open softball season

Wednesday, March 13, 2024 | 5:38 PM

Hempfield won its eighth WPIAL softball championship last season.

The Spartans are not shying away from the expectation that comes with winning a ninth.

The season opens Friday, and WPIAL and PIAA championships are the order of the day — each day of tireless, detail-oriented preparation gleaned from legendary coach Bob Kalp for decades — for a team that is chock-full of talent.

Hempfield has it all covered, from the pitcher’s circle to the batter’s box and around the horn.

The level of excellence in one of the state’s premier programs has not changed. If anything, it’s been raised.

“With four committed D-I players and, potentially, three or four more of the sophomores signing this fall, how can that not be the expectation?” Hempfield third-year coach Tina Madison said.

Hempfield went 21-4 and finished runner-up in the state in 6A to undefeated North Penn (28-0).

Junior pitcher Riley Miller returns after earning TribLive Westmoreland Player of the Year honors with a 19-4 record, 1.25 ERA and 175 strikeouts.

Miller already has committed to Kent State. Hempfield’s other Division I commits are senior right fielder Maggie Howard (Georgetown), senior center fielder Peyton Heisler (Penn) and junior shortstop Allie Cervola (Ohio).

Other key players back are senior second baseman Sarah Podkul, sophomore left fielder Clair Mitchell, sophomore third baseman Lauren Howard, senior first baseman Emily Griffith, sophomore catcher Ella Berkebile and senior designated player Hannah Uhrinek.

Lauren Howard set a program record with 36 runs scored and batted .443.

With so many experienced starters back, there are times when Madison can lean back in her director’s chair.

“This team is being led by the players, which is exactly what coaches want,” Madison said. “I have a group of high-level ballplayers who know the game and know how to lead. I am just the co-pilot.”

Seneca Valley will do its best to stand in Hempfield’s way of a repeat. The Spartans’ eight titles are tied with Chartiers-Houston for the second most in WPIAL history.

Ace pitcher Lexie Hames, a Clemson commit and one of the top-regarded players in the country, is back to lead Seneca Valley.

Hempfield will try not to look ahead to two section matchups with the Raiders or potential meetings with them down the road.

“The girls are focused on a repeat,” Madison said. “They are highly competitive leaders, and they want to win.”

Hempfield’s first two games are against the top two teams in 5A, No. 1 Shaler and No. 2 Armstrong.

Around the county

Belle Vernon (4A) also won a WPIAL title last season — its fifth — but veteran coach Tom Rodriguez is concerned more about what he has to replace than what he has back.

A coach who enjoys keeping and analyzing statistics, Rodriguez said the players he lost to graduation or otherwise accounted for 61% of the team’s home runs, 47% of the runs and 46% of the hits and RBIs.

Senior slugger Ava Zubovic is a key loss. The Mercyhurst commit is out for the season with a torn ACL.

With all of that being said, can the Leopards repeat?

“That’s tough to say at this point,” Rodriguez said. “Losing two Division I players and a Division II player is a lot.

“Of course, last year after Elizabeth Forward 10-runned us at the end of the season, and we only had one hit, I became very doubtful. But we continued to work, and things worked out. So you never know. We are going to give it our best shot.”

Juniors Gracie Sokol (6 HRs, 23 RBIs) and Mia Zubovic (27 RBIs) are back for the Leopards.

Norwin was a 6A semifinalist that lost to Hempfield. The Lady Knights have one of the top players in the WPIAL at shortstop in senior Bailey Snowberger, a Holy Cross commit who batted .519 with five homers and 39 runs scored. Snowberger and senior third baseman Josey Michalski were all-state selections.

Franklin Regional (5A) could be one of the top offensive teams in the county again and might make a push in the playoffs if pitching and defense follow the bats.

A quarterfinalist, Franklin Regional features junior Toryn Fulton, a power-hitting infielder who has committed to South Florida. Fulton hit .552 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs.

Junior catcher Ciara Camacho is another staple in the lineup.

The Panthers hit 32 homers and should continue to carry some offensive pop.

Youth will be an issue because the team returns only one senior, but players such as sophomore Adrianna Martz played a lot.

“I would like to think that the young girls will be exciting to watch play and learn the game,” coach Jim Armstrong said. “We are in a very good section with Armstrong and Latrobe, who also lost a lot of players. Penn-Trafford is set to have a bounce-back year. We are counting the days until we can see how we match up with all of them.”

• After a six-win season, Penn-Trafford (5A) returns eight starters, including seniors Mack Keenan and Erin Drotos and juniors Kylie Anthony and Cam Ponko.

“We’re counting on senior leadership that will keep the team accountable and more focused,” coach Denny Little said. “I also believe our hitting will be a strength this year as we worked very hard in the offseason.”

Little thinks the Warriors were beginning to peak late in the season and can springboard off that momentum.

• Another 5A team, Latrobe, finished as the Section 2 runner-up and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals. Back are junior pitcher Kayla Williams, a Slippery Rock commit, and senior Corrine Wright, who will play at Gannon.

• The WPIAL 3A runner-up and a state qualifier, Southmoreland will rely on experience after losing only one senior. Coach Todd Bunner lists 10 returning starters.

Senior all-state shortstop Amarah McCutcheon (.542, 10 HRs, 29 RBIs) is one of the toughest outs in the district. She is a Cal (Pa.) commit.

A talented battery also comes back in senior pitcher Maddie Brown and junior catcher Makayla Etling. Junior outfielder Riley Puckey also comes back.

• With eight key players returning, Mt. Pleasant (3A) shows some promise. Senior catcher Addy Reese and junior pitcher GiGi Stanek will play key roles.

“We should be able to defend and pitch above average,” Vikings coach Chris Brunson said. “Hitting will be our variable as is with most teams.

“Our section is loaded with talent, especially in the circle. It will be a dogfight to make the playoffs for all the teams.”

The Vikings were WPIAL and PIAA champions in 2021.

• Brunson called Yough the Section 3-3A favorite and a title contender. Cougars coach Art “Dutch” Harvey said his team looks “better in every phase” of the game and is looking forward to see what Yough can do.

The Cougars lost to Southmoreland last year in a memorable quarterfinals slugfest at Norwin. Southmoreland won 15-14.

Eight starters are back for Yough, including junior shortstop Adoria Waldier, an all-state player who also pitches.

Waldier hit nine homers.

Other top players are senior Makayla Spoonhoward and junior Abby Zuraw.

Several freshmen could make an impact. They played on a middle school team, Harvey said, that did not lose in two years.

Playing freshmen is nothing new for the program.

“We will see how starting freshmen every game for past two years will help this year with experience and other things,” Harvey said. “Defense should be much stronger, offense will be far better and pitching looks like the strongest that we have had since 2021.”

• Seton Hall commit Gionnah Ruffner of Greensburg Salem (4A) could be one of the top hitters in the area again. And maybe one of the top catchers? The senior who hit .534 with nine homers and 25 RBIs is moving to from center field to behind the plate.

Sophomore pitcher Alle Scarpa also returns for the Golden Lions.

Jeannette (A) brings back sophomore Grace Stein, a talented pitcher who went 12-5 with a 1.50 ERA and 136 K’s and threw five no-hitters as a freshman. The Jayhawks lost six seniors but return five starters. Five newcomers have never played the game before.

Greensburg Central Catholic (2A), a semifinal team last year, has a new coach in Chelsey Frock, who was hired only recently. The vice president of the Mount Pleasant Independent Athletic Association and a Mt. Pleasant alum, Frock played softball and volleyball at Carlow and Westmoreland County Community College.

GCC has six returning starters, including Grace Kindel, Macee Magill and Makenzee Kinney.

• Senior Cheyenne Piper is back in the circle for Ligonier Valley (2A). She struck out 194 in 113 1/3 innings and issued just eight walks.

Derry (3A) has junior home run hitter Sophia Doherty back.

Players to watch

Maddie Brown, Sr., P, Southmoreland

Ciara Camacho, Jr., C, Franklin Regional

Sophia Doherty, Sr., 3B, Derry

Makayla Etling, Jr., C, Southmoreland

Toryn Fulton, Jr., SS, Franklin Regional

Lauren Howard, So., 3B, Hempfield

Maggie Howard, Sr., OF, Hempfield

Amarah McCutcheon, Sr., SS, Southmoreland

Riley Miller, Jr., P, Hempfield

Cheyenne Piper, Sr., P, Ligonier Valley

Cam Ponko, Jr., 3B, Penn-Trafford

Talia Ross, Sr., P, Belle Vernon

Gionnah Ruffner Sr., C, Greensburg Salem

Bailey Snowberger, Sr., SS, Norwin

Gracie Sokol, Sr., 1B, Belle Vernon

Grace Stein, So., P, Jeannette

Adoria Waldier, Jr., SS, Yough

Kayla Williams, Sr., P, Latrobe

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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