PIAA’s spring sports cancellation especially tough for new softball, baseball coaches

Saturday, June 6, 2020 | 4:39 PM

Bob Kovalcin did not coach a game this season at Latrobe, but the man who came out of retirement to lead the Wildcats softball team has spent the last couple of weeks conducting exit meetings with his players.

The asterisk-stamped season never happened because it was claimed by coronavirus restrictions.

“I met with my seniors and juniors. Now this weekend, it will be the sophomores and freshmen,” said Kovalcin, who coached Latrobe for nine years during his first stint (2004-12) before returning this year to take over for Rick Kozusko, who resigned last August after three seasons.

“It was all face-to-face,” Kovalcin said of the exit meetings. “There was an 8-foot table, outdoors. I was on one side and they were on the other. They handed in their uniforms.”

Kovalcin and other first-year coaches in the area also saw their seasons end before they began. The covid-19 pandemic pulled out the rug from beneath them, just as they were starting to establish continuity.

Still, Kovalcin does not regret returning to Latrobe.

“Everyone is going through it,” he said. “I was still getting to know the girls. We had two months of conditioning and half-a-month of practices (before the season was canceled). I think we built a basis of communication, and we’ll be all right moving forward.”

Derry rookie softball coach John DePalma knows the feeling. The former Derry baseball assistant took over for Pat Maloy, who resigned after five seasons.

“It was very deflating,” DePalma said. “You work to prepare, reteach a different system, see their successes and hang it up. I have talked to a small majority of them, but I will see the travel girls somewhere on or off the tournament fields. A few of them will be playing for me this summer.

Same scenario for new Greensburg Central Catholic baseball coach Tom Appleby. He was an assistant to Dennis Reist, who resigned after three years to take a coaching position at South Allegheny.

Appleby used to coach the Centurions softball team. His goal is to maintain momentum that was forged across the last few seasons when GCC produced a WPIAL runner-up finish and two PIAA semifinal trips.

He said he was anticipating seeing through the careers of his six seniors.

“I was looking forward to the talent we developed in the seniors,” Appleby said. “It’s unfortunate. It was their last hurrah.”

GCC players seem to respect their new coach, but seniors will not get to work with him in game action.

“Losing the season was not easy,” GCC senior Ben LaCarte said. “Everyone looks forward to their senior sports seasons, and I know a lot of guys were definitely upset about losing baseball because we had a great shot at making a run at that WPIAL title. We got so close so many years in a row. I thought this was the year we were going to finally get it.”

LaCarte said Appleby got the program back to fundamentals.

“He was really concerned about developing the younger players and making sure they master the basics of the game,” LaCarte said. “I was really looking forward to playing on his team. I know those guys will have a great season next year with him as coach.”

Said Appleby: “I like to focus on details, like defensive plays. Pitchers aren’t just pitchers; they’re defensive players too. It’s too bad we couldn’t apply some of the things we were working on (in games).”

Kovalcin helped turn Latrobe into a powerhouse before he retired in 2012. He won WPIAL titles in 2007, ‘08 and ‘11, and the Wildcats came in second in the PIAA in 2007 and ‘08.

Latrobe went 38-21 under Kozusko with back-to-back WPIAL finals appearances.

But Kovalcin can’t add to his 141-49 record, or get at a beefed-up nonsection schedule, until next spring. So, he is in the process of contacting college coaches regarding some of his players.

The NCAA extended its “dead” period to June 30, so recruits can’t have contact with college coaches until after that date.

“We’ll hopefully have some workouts in the fall,” Kovalcin said. “But we’ll basically be starting from scratch again. I hope to email some college coaches and help these girls with their recruitment.”

Latrobe has 48 girls in its program in grades seven through 12. The team will have 10 seniors next year, including ace pitcher Jordan Tallman, a Georgetown commit.

Kovalcin stresses academic success as much as he does on-field progress. He demands his players carry a 3.0 GPA to play.

“That hasn’t been an issue with this group,” he said. “Some of them are over a 4.0. They are all hard workers, and they all have jobs.”

DePalma once led a Latrobe Vipers travel team to the USSSA World Series. He also is a former assistant baseball coach at Pitt-Greensburg.

DePalma’s attention has shifted to travel softball, where he is the coach of the Firecrackers 14-UA team.

Travel teams are beginning to play again in Ohio and other surrounding states, and Pennsylvania will follow suit in the weeks ahead.

Only three of the 15 tournaments in which the Firecrackers will play are in Pennsylvania.

Dealing with covid-19 safety guidelines will be new to DePalma and his girls. But he also moves on with an eye toward the players’ future.

“Next year for us turns the page to college recruiting,” he said. “The girls know that it’s now time to turn up the heat and focus on their futures in softball or make a move in another direction. Luckily, we’re invited to specific tournaments that will help us do that.”

Derry was hoping to get to the WPIAL playoffs and end a three-game losing streak in the first round with its first postseason win in at least two decades.

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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