Hitters to pave playoff path for Westmoreland County softball teams

Monday, May 6, 2019 | 6:50 PM

Pitchers made all the headlines in the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs in recent years for Westmoreland County teams.

Morgan Ryan, Macey Mularski, Maddie Uschock, Bailey Parshall … the list goes on.

But those players, program all-timers with the rings to prove it, moved on to college softball.

Times have changed with their departures. Graduation-turnover, injuries and an influx of youth has reshaped some of the area’s top programs, including Hempfield, where the four-time defending WPIAL and three-time defending PIAA champions had been relying on the pitching partnership of sophomore Callie Sowers and junior Kylie Saus to work over batters.

Saus injured her knee, however, leaving Sowers to do the heavy lifting.

The Spartans are looking for that next great one. But that player might not be a pitcher: Emma Hoffner is one of the top players in the WPIAL as a sophomore. And senior Laura Fox is a talented center fielder.

It could be hitters, not big-name pitchers, who make the difference when the WPIAL playoffs begin next week. Crazier things have happened — like Hempfield coach Bob Kalp dabbing on his 74th birthday.

Big bats, not overpowering arms, might be what push some local teams through to the finals.

Look at Penn-Trafford. A lineup full of talented hitters who pepper defenses with frozen ropes and gap-shots can be just as threatening as a fast-throwing left-hander with an effective change-up and rise ball. Denny Little manages the Class 5A No. 1 Warriors a “little” differently.

“The game is becoming more like baseball,” Little said. “We have more of a pitching staff. If one girl doesn’t have her best stuff, another can come in and get out of a situation. Not every team has a horse. Yes, we have hitters and we think we’re going to score some runs, so that helps. But it’s all about execution.”

Penn-Trafford has the year-older tandem of Morgan Hilty and Sami Shickel in the circle, along with newcomer Mia Smith.

“You still need pitching and strong defense,” Little said.

The big hitters include Emma Armstrong, Emma Little, Morgan Nedley and others.

Latrobe almost has to rely on its offense after losing its top two pitchers. Strikeout ace Kiley Myers left the team four games into the season and sophomore Jordan Tallman, who was among the WPIAL strikeout leaders before a leg injury, has missed substantial time with a leg injury. She could return in two weeks, coach Rick Kozusko said.

“As always, we’re trying to produce as many runs as we can,” Kozusko said. “Along with giving our best defensive efforts to help our pitchers who are doing their best to limit other teams’ offensive production.”

Myers helped Latrobe reach the last two WPIAL finals in the largest class. Her catcher, senior Makayla Munchinski, takes playoff experience into the postseason.

Kalp agreed Westmoreland has been spoiled by outstanding pitchers of late.

“It definitely is not by design,” he said. “There is just not an abundance of D-1 caliber pitcher in the area at this time. There are a number of young pitchers that are in the process of developing into big-name pitchers.”

He said Sowers is a case in point. Kalp compared Sowers’ first-year stats to those of former star Morgan Ryan, how pitching at Notre Dame.

“Amazingly similar,” Kalp said.

Sowers: 11-4, 2.71 ERA, 115 Ks, 30 walks, in 98 innings.

Ryan: 9-3, 2.68 ERA, 52 Ks, 24 walks, in 84 innings.

“Numerous other schools are using two or three pitchers,” Kalp said, “probably because there is no clear No. 1.”

Franklin Regional has gone mainly with senior pitcher Angalee Beall, especially with backup Meckenzie DeRiggi out with a broken leg. That triggered a necessity move: Olivia Yurinko pitched for the first time at the varsity level last week at Penn-Trafford and held her own.

The Panthers, although solid in several areas, have lacked an identity as they try to outscore teams.

“You look at a team like Penn-Trafford,” Franklin Regional coach Jim Armstrong said. “You know they’re going to come at you and hit. You need hitters. We can’t compare ourselves to P-T or Laurel Highlands or whomever. We have to find out who we are.”

DeRiggi could be back for the playoffs, Armstrong said.

Section 2-6A co-champion Norwin has been effective offensively with a number of key hitters, including Victoria Shimko, Alexandra Brentzel and Alexandra Dillner, but the two-pitcher approach of freshman Angelina Pepe and sophomore Sydney Lokay has worked well.

Belle Vernon has thrown Sophie Godzak for much of the season as it tried to retool its program. The Leopards fell just short of a 4A postseason spot.

Longtime coach Tom Rodriguez knew how good he had it with Parshall, whose name alone made hitters back up in the box.

“It’s been different, for sure,” Rodriguez said. “We know our batters have to be better for us to have a chance. They have to get us five or six on the board.”

With Parshall, Rodriguez knew a slim lead was likely going to be enough. She helped the Leopards win three WPIAL titles. She graduated with 984 strikeouts, 39 shutouts and 76 wins before heading to Penn State.

“I am doing a lot more video scouting,” Rodriguez said. “I chart every pitch, and I know what pitch to go at each hitter with.”

There are still the playoff mainstays. Mt. Pleasant has flame-throwing senior ace Carolyn Alincic, a PIAA champion as a sophomore who threw a no-hitter Thursday against Highlands. She was just nominated for the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year award. Another potent lineup for the Vikings that includes sophomore Louisiana-Lafayette recruit Haylie Brunson, can score plenty of runs, though.

Yough has steadfast senior Kierra Waywood in the circle, while Southmoreland goes with sophomore Jess Matheny, who helped the Scotties win a Class 3A title last year.

Southmoreland, though, has developed a reputation for hitting home runs. The team had 25 at last count — a school record. Lexi Katt, Charity Henderson and Matheny are among the long-ball leaders.

“The playoffs will be more about hitters,” Scotties coach Todd Bunner said. “The teams in our section can all flat out hit the ball.”

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

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