Plum softball has tools to get clear playoff hurdle

Saturday, March 19, 2022 | 12:41 PM

Plum’s softball team walked off the diamond last spring stunned.

Fox Chapel, the No. 14 seed in the Class 5A playoffs, upended the Mustangs, 2-0, in the WPIAL first round, abruptly halting a promising season.

“I don’t like to dwell in the past too much, because there’s not a whole lot you can do about it,” said fourth-year coach Phil DiLonardo. “But we’ve talked about it.”

The loss ended Plum’s season at 13-4 overall. The Mustangs went 11-1 in Section 1-5A, winning the section crown.

When Plum takes the field for its season opener March 25 — against the same Fox Chapel team that ended its season last year — it will do so with about half of its lineup from that game.

“We lost Melanie Mienke, who was a three-year starter and pitched almost every inning last year,” DiLonardo said. “So that’s an area we’ve been working on.”

Taking the spot of Mienke, who is now playing at Pitt-Greensburg, will be junior Makenzie Lang, an exceptional hitter who was a first-team all-section pick as a first baseman last season. Now, she’ll try to command the circle as well as she commands the batter’s box.

“It’s definitely a change for her from first base,” DiLonardo said. “But she brings her bat, her attitude. She led the team in a lot of offensive categories last year. Probably all of them. She’s gong to be the big bopper in our lineup.

“She’ll bring some confidence into the circle. She’s a very confident kid, and I think she’ll do well.”

Freshman Dani Pick also could see time at pitcher but likely will be the team’s starting catcher.

Seniors Ashley Polakovc, Jaralyn Kinkaid and Maura Marston return to the starting lineup.

“(Polakovic) was the leader of our infield last year,” DiLonardo said. “We voted her most valuable defensive player. She’s gong to bring that this year. She’s looked really good in practice.”

The Mustangs will have to navigate a tough section again. Last year, the three other playoff qualifiers from Plum’s section — Armstrong, Indiana and Franklin Regional — advanced from the first round. Armstrong reached the WPIAL and PIAA title games.

“I think we’ll be as competitive as anybody in the section,” said DiLonardo, who highlighted the River Hawks as a team that likely will have the section’s best offense.

Despite having a traditionally strong program, Plum has been on the wrong end of two straight playoff upsets now, losing as the No. 2 seed to eventual Class 5A champ West Allegheny in the 2018-19 season. Those disappointments are working as fuel for Plum now.

“Pretty much, to a person, they want to win the section again,” DiLonardo said of his team. “We’ve won our section two years running, and that’s one of our goals.

“Our other goal is to get over the playoff hump and finally advance in the playoffs this year. My expectations are high, and so are theirs.”


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