Jeannette softball gaining recognition for section success
Monday, April 22, 2019 | 6:51 PM
As a math teacher at Jeannette, Zac Karas deals with numbers on a daily basis.
As the school’s softball coach, he is starting to see things add up.
“I was unsure how it would all play out this year,” said Karas, the Jayhawks’ sixth-year coach. “We had a lot of junior starters, and they have taken the bull by the horns. But they needed some players around them.”
Jeannette started the year with meager participation: Nine girls showed up at preseason signups. But the team grew to almost double that number and all of the sudden is playing with the determination of a team wanting to be taken seriously again.
“I asked our girls to get their friends to play,” Karas said. “We needed to fill out our roster. The girls came out. They have bought in to what we’re doing. It’s nice when you’re winning.”
The subtle blend of newcomers and proven players is working well. Jeannette (5-2, 4-2 Section 3-A) is in contention for its first playoff berth since 2016 and its first winning season since ‘14.
The Jayhawks take a four-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game at Geibel. They are two games behind first-place Leechburg with five section games to play.
“We have a lot of young players but everyone wanted to learn,” junior pitcher Faith Johnston said. “We’re all encouraging each other. From our first game on, we’re getting better. We always have that one bad inning, but we’re starting to eliminate that.”
Johnston and her twin sister, Grace, along with another junior, Abby Mortimore, have powered the team offensively.
Mortimore, a first baseman, is hitting .500, Faith Johnston .476 and shortstop Grace Johnston .476. Faith has three home runs and 13 RBIs, while Mortimore and Grace have driven in nine apiece.
Sophomore Taylor-Lynn Finken (.318) continues to adjust to her role behind the plate after moving from center field to catcher. The Johnstons and Finken are the team’s only travel ball players.
And an all-new outfield is improving. Karas said the team is cutting back on errors and making more routine plays. The team is hitting .319 collectively and has scored 62 runs.
Jeannette lost in the first round in its last two postseason trips. It made the quarterfinals in 2013 and finished 15-4.
“None of the these girls have ever been to the playoffs,” said Karas, a Hempfield graduate. “They’re all excited. But we have a long way to go. We have to win the games we’re supposed to win.”
Jeannette has played a slim schedule the last few years, often because of inclement weather and unplayable field conditions. The WPIAL allows a maximum of 20 regular-season games. Last year, Jeannette played just its 12 section games (4-8), and tallied only 14 games (6-8) in 2017. Nonsection games have been all but scarce with just three in two-plus years, leaving the team unfamiliar with outside competition.
“We’ve been behind the 8-ball the last two seasons,” Karas said. “And playing in Class A is tough. Pitchers are either really good or just trying to throw strikes.”
Jeannette is looking forward to playing Greensburg Central Catholic, a section opponent it could have to beat to get into the postseason. GCC (3-5, 3-3) hasn’t played Jeannette in softball since 2016.
“We’re really curious to see what they have and how we fare against them,” Karas said.
The teams’ first game was rained out.
Karas knows in order for the team to make a return to the postseason, Jeannette has to have Faith. Johnston has thrown every pitch for the team since the start of last season. She has a 2.21 ERA.
“She makes improvement every game,” Karas said. “She isn’t walking a lot of girls.”
Johnston said the new girls have been patient, a concept that goes both ways.
“Coach Karas is trying to find out which positions to play everyone,” Faith Johnston said. “We had a bunch of open spots to start with. Whoever is the most aggressive, most improved, whatever the case, they get the spots.
“We’re hitting the ball better and making more plays on defense.”
Jeannette is unquestionably a football town, but other sports have grown in popularity in recent years. Girls basketball and baseball have won WPIAL titles this decade.
“People in school want to know how we’re doing,” Karas said. “They look for us in the paper. It’s a lot nicer to tell them we won instead of getting beat 15-0 in three innings.”
Jeannette knows it is light years from the Hempfields and Mt. Pleasants of the softball world, but the program hopes to keep the arrow pointing upward as it aims to compete every game.
“You see more people at our games,” Faith Johnston said. “The bleachers are almost filled up. We’re getting more recognition.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
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