Leechburg softball puts playoff streak on line

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Saturday, March 27, 2021 | 7:37 PM


No softball team in the WPIAL has built a streak quite like Leechburg’s.

The program’s penchant for consistency has equated to 33 straight WPIAL playoff seasons.

That is a run, coach Debbie Young said, this year’s team will fight fiercely to maintain.

But the goals and expectations, she added, are never about just making the playoffs. She feels this team has the makeup to challenge for another long WPIAL run and make its mark in the state tournament.

“The Leechburg softball attitude, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s just always here,” said Young, who enters her seventh year at the helm of the Blue Devils.

“It’s a winning attitude with confidence. It’s such a pleasure to watch these girls practice and play. They put everything into it. This year, it’s probably more than any year that I’ve seen, probably because of the loss of last year.”

With practices and a pair of scrimmages under its belt, Leechburg kicks off its season at 4 p.m. Monday against Serra Catholic at Gilpin Leechburg Park.

Leechburg then is scheduled to host Deer Lakes on Thursday and visit Jeannette on April 5 before kicking off Section 3-1A play April 9 at Northgate.

The Blue Devils also will face Ellis, Riverview, St. Joseph and Springdale in section play.

“As coaches, we can’t wait to see the rest of the season play out and see what this team can accomplish,” Young said.

There were high hopes for last year’s team, which had plans to build on a trip to the WPIAL semifinals and the first berth in the PIAA tournament since 2009. But growing covid concerns wiped out the season and denied the opportunity for the Blue Devils to play, especially last year’s three seniors: Grace Reinke, Ashley Weaver and Kelsi Spiering.

“It was heartbreaking for those seniors last year,” Young said. “Gracie had lost her (junior) season to injury, and she was so excited to come back as a senior and start and be able to play a full year. Kelsi and Ashley had both earned starting positions.

“It also was tough for these seniors this year to have lost last year. They are grateful to be back playing in their final season. That loss (of the 2020 season) is their motivation.”

Six seniors are helping fuel the team this spring. Four of the five — Skylyn Raypush, Olivia Shimer, Emma Ritchie and McKenna Pierce — are team captains. Madison Hanan, Young said, is back after not playing last year and is ready to make an impact at second base.

Senior outfielder Arwen Rak also hopes to challenge for playing time.

“Not having last year was a hit for all of us. It was especially for someone like me who doesn’t play tournament softball,” said Raypush, who will start in right field.

“So it’s just great to be back in the swing of things and playing towards all of our goals this year.”

Pierce, who, along with Ritchie, earned Valley News Dispatch first-team all-star honors in 2019, said the lineup overall is shaping up to be formidable.

“We know that when each of us goes up to hit, we have good people behind us that can come through and drive in runs,” she said.

“It’s not just one or two hitters who can get the job done. I think it will be tough to face this lineup, top to bottom.”

Pierce, a shortstop, enters her fourth year as a starter. She batted .468 in 2019 with 23 RBIs and a team-best 33 runs scored to go along with 12 doubles, three triples and three home runs.

Ritchie compiled a 17-3 pitching record and a 2.54 ERA with 125 strikeouts over 10723 innings in 2019. At the plate, she hit .429 with 29 RBIs and seven doubles.

Ritchie again is the main pitcher, but she also will form a throwing tandem with sophomore Anna Cibik. When one is pitching, the other will be at first base.

“Anna is a really good pitcher. I have so much confidence in her,” Ritchie said. “She practices all the time, and she loves it.”

Catching Ritchie and Cibik is junior Bella Vozar, who was set to take over the position last year from 2019 graduate Kristen Knapp.

“She is very strong as a catcher with a strong arm, and she is solid with the bat, too,” Young said.

Junior Tatum Verner rounds out the infield at third base.

Shimer will anchor the outfield in center, and Raypush will be in right. Joining Shimer and Raypush in the outfield is left fielder Karli Mazak, a sophomore.

“Knowing how things aren’t guaranteed or how things can be taken away quickly helps make every moment at a practice or a game that much sweeter,” Shimer said.

“We’re taking nothing for granted, and we’re ready to play.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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