Kiski Area softball reaps benefits of building foundation

Thursday, March 14, 2019 | 7:44 PM

Maggie Nicholas jokes that her win-loss record as Kiski Area’s softball coach doesn’t look impressive on paper. But in a “What have you done for me lately?” world, the Cavaliers’ recent track record jumps off the page.

Kiski Area, a program that struggled mightily just a few years ago, hit a serious upswing with a pair of WPIAL playoff appearances the last two seasons and a long-awaited postseason victory last spring. The Cavaliers crafted their yearly motto with continued progress in mind: “Onward.”

“I keep talking to our players about each game, each practice, we have to keep moving forward,” said Nicholas, formerly Maggie Jones before getting married in the offseason. “Never get complacent, always want to get better. Each time we’ve had those messages, it seemed like we’ve had to believe in that message.”

The players already are buying in to the idea. Rather than setting their sights on a far-in-the-future goal like a WPIAL semifinal appearance — or better yet, a championship, the Cavaliers are choosing to focus on the first step in their journey.

“We don’t like to look too much ahead,” senior pitcher Megan Andree said. “Right now we’re mainly focused on just making it to playoffs in general. We focus on one game at a time. That’s what we need to do this year: We need to focus on winning our first game and then the next game after that.”

That type of concentration might be a requirement for Kiski Area, given an imposing schedule.

Offseason WPIAL realignment resulted in a juiced-up Section 1-5A, with Albert Gallatin, Connellsville, Latrobe and Laurel Highlands joining Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area and Penn-Trafford. Six of those teams made it to at least the WPIAL quarterfinals last season. Only four teams in each section are guaranteed a playoff berth.

“I think there’ll be a lot of competition, but I think it will be good for us,” senior Alexa Nagy said. “The freshmen will get good experience with having the tougher competition their first year.”

The baptism-by-fire approach worked for Kiski Area before. The Cavaliers went 0-14 in 2015, Nicholas’ first season, and followed it with a 2-18 record the next year, when their current seniors were freshmen.

Those two difficult years laid the foundation for the past two seasons: In 2017 Kiski Area qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and the Cavaliers followed it up with another postseason trip and a first-round win over Mars, their first playoff victory since 2008.

“As hard as that (first) year was because we lost every game, there was so much good that came out of that in terms of really building a foundation,” Nicholas said. “That’s imperative for any program. As a coaching staff, we had to set expectations for what this program is about. Even though we were losing games on the scoreboard, everyone was starting to invest in what we truly want for our players, not just as softball players but as student-athletes.

“For them to come back the next year … this core group of girls that were a part of those two losing seasons really grew, not just as softball players but as leaders and people of great character.”

Now, there’s been what Nicholas calls a “trickle-down” effect: Players from the younger levels are coming up excited and ready to contribute, and that helps the varsity team. And so in spite of losing three starters from last season’s quarterfinal appearance, the Cavaliers have plenty in reserve.

It helps, of course, to have several players who played key roles in the back-to-back playoff appearances. Andree, a Franklin and Marshall recruit and the Cavaliers’ No. 1 pitcher last season, returns in the circle. Nagy, a Mt. Aloysius recruit, is a four-year starter and one of the team’s top hitters.

Junior shortstop Courtney Moyer anchors the offense and defense. Sophomore Kassandra Cessna, a breakout performer as a freshman, and junior Brooke Bires can play both left field and center field.

Freshman Ashlee Bair is expected to start at second base, with another freshman, Kira Brown, competing with junior Sarah Clever at third base. Either Brown or Clever also could play right field, where sophomore Abby King also is vying for playing time.

“We have people playing positions they’ve never played before, but they’re really excelling,” said Andree, who pitched a perfect game against Gateway last season.

The road ahead certainly appears challenging, but Nicholas hopes the players’ focus will help them succeed this season … maybe even enough to put a dent in that win-loss record.

“To come to each game with a competitiveness and drive — this is a tough section, maybe even the toughest section in all of softball this year,” Nicholas said. “The great thing about that is we know if we can push for the playoffs, there’s not really going to be much better competition in the playoffs. We’re going to be seeing it in our section. Every game we have to treat with that intensity, like a playoff environment.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, or via Twitter .


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