High school softball players finding diamonds to play on in pop-up summer leagues

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 | 3:54 PM

Brooke Cleland is back to doing what she does best on the softball field: launching towering home runs.

And she is doing so again in Penn-Trafford green and gold.

The rising senior and several of her high school teammates found a way to play some games together after the coronavirus wiped out the WPIAL spring season.

The Greater Pittsburgh Girls Softball League extended an invitation to high school-level teams, and several have taken spots on the schedule, which operates mainly on a pick-up basis.

Rounding the bases probably never felt so good to some girls who had not played in a competitive game since last season.

“It is so nice to be back playing the game I love,” said Cleland, a Seton Hill commit who also plays travel ball for Team PA. “It has been really nice to play again with some of the seniors, on a field (Municipal Field No. 3) that we have been playing on since we were 10 and 12 years old.”

The other teams in the league are Avonworth, Baldwin, Canon-McMillan, Fox Chapel, Franklin Regional, Highlands, Montour, North Allegheny (varsity and junior varsity teams), Pine-Richland, Plum, Shaler, Trinity, Upper St. Clair and Thomas Jefferson.

Many of the usual high school coaches are in charge of their teams, although neither the league nor the teams are affiliated with schools, participating in name only.

“The league is doing its best to provide a place for the kids to play,” Penn-Trafford coach Denny Little said. “I am glad we decided to do it. Some seniors are getting a chance to play, and the younger girls are showing me something on the field.”

Like many of these “pop-up” leagues, results are not as important as simply playing and experiencing competition again.

The Greater Pittsburgh Girls Softball League has numerous age levels operating as usual, albeit with fewer players, in 6-and-under T-ball through 18-under fast-pitch divisions.

“The quasi-high school league is an extension of our rec league, what we normally do,” GPGSL director Jeff Frey said. “It gives the girls a chance to play together as a team and have senior nights and things like that. We’ve never had a high school level because a lot of the girls are usually with their summer (travel) teams or they’re off doing other things.”

Games are played Monday through Thursday as to not overlap with travel leagues, which also are in full swing, on weekends.

Frey, who waived the sign-up fee for the high school teams, said 36 teams initially signed up for the new league, but that number dwindled to 15.

Some teams have home fields such as public parks, and others play all road games. Coaches often get the fields ready and schedule umpires.

“There is a very limited schedule,” Frey said of the high school league. “It’s only eight to 10 games and no playoffs. But the girls are getting the chance to play some games.”

Other leagues also have formed in an attempt to provide a WPIAL-like experience, no matter how thinned out it is, including one in Beaver County.

The 10-team league, the brainchild of several county coaches with an assist from Beaver County FastPitch president Bill Littler, began June 24 and will run into late July.

The teams are Ambridge, Beaver, Beaver Falls, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Freedom, New Brighton, Riverside, Rochester and South Side.

Beaver coach Amy Haggart helped organize the unnamed league.

“It is great that Beaver County was able to come together and have some type of season for our teams,” Haggart said. “The girls, especially the seniors, are excited to play with their teams one last time.”

The Mon-Valley Independent newspaper is sponsoring a round-robin tournament this week. The eight teams involved are Belle Vernon (Washington Township), Elizabeth Forward (Warriors FP), Ringgold (Rams FP), Thomas Jefferson (Jaguars FP), California (Cal Impulse), Frazier (Perryopolis), Brownsville (Falcons FP) and Ringgold JV (Rams FP Jrs.).

Team names were changed to avoid school district affiliation.

While a semblance of a season is better than nothing, there are other ways to have a season play out. Belle Vernon’s high school coach, Tom Rodriguez, put together a “virtual” season on Twitter with weekly results and playoffs.

The Leopards fell short in the WPIAL semifinals but rallied to win the PIAA title in Class 4A.

Unfortunately, the Leopards might have to settle for a virtual parade.

Participation is not booming in the new leagues — or the old ones, for that matter.

The regular Greater Pittsburgh Girls Softball League houses up to 250 teams each summer, but those numbers also have shrunk substantially, Frey said, at least in part to covid-19 fears.

He said a parent from a Thomas Jefferson 8-under program tested positive for the virus, so those affiliated with that division decided to avoid the league for two weeks.

Other than that, he said safety guidelines are in place and the league is functioning.

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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