Plum softball starting to hit stride in search of elusive playoff victory

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021 | 7:32 PM


When the Plum softball team suffered a 5-0 loss to Section 1-5A rival Franklin Regional on April 7, team members were itching to get back on the field and bounce back from the uncharacteristic shutout.

But a game against Woodland Hills two days later was scrapped because of covid issues with the Wolverines. A couple days after that, two chances to face Kiski Area were done in by rain.

“A week off from playing at this time of the season is a really long time,” Plum coach Phil DiLonardo said. “At most, maybe you are off two or three days. They were definitely ready to get out there and play.”

That opportunity finally came eight days after the Franklin Regional game, and the Mustangs collected nine hits in a 9-6 win over section leader Armstrong as they navigate their way to what they hope is another WPIAL playoff berth.

“Armstrong is a good team which can put up a lot of runs, but, fortunately, we were a little better that day,” DiLonardo said. “We got some outstanding hitting from people who hadn’t been hitting previous to that, which was good to see. It was a great team effort.”

The River Hawks had scored 72 runs combined over their first six games (5-1) before the matchup with Plum.

“The Armstrong game was a real confidence booster for us,” senior outfielder Jillian Durst said. “To that point, we had been inconsistent with our bats, and we weren’t getting hits when we needed them the most. The loss to Franklin Regional really hurt, and we knew we couldn’t afford to be down two games in the section. Getting the win over Armstrong helped us realize that we still had a shot at winning the section.”

Plum’s 9-1 win Tuesday at Penn Hills put it at 5-3 overall and 3-1 in the section. Armstrong leads the section at 5-1. Franklin Regional is 3-2, and Kiski Area and Indiana are 2-3.

The Mustangs are busy over the next five days with section games at Indiana Thursday and at Kiski Area on Friday before the rematch with Franklin Regional on Monday.

Plum travels to Armstrong on May 3.

“There still is a lot ahead of us,” Durst said. “We know that if we keep working hard, we will be in a good spot at the end. I think playing Armstrong on their field might be an advantage for us because on our field, it’s so short, and they were hitting home runs that could’ve been outs on other fields. We will have to see.”

The competitiveness of the section showed Tuesday as the Cavaliers, who had lost 14-1 to Indiana on April 16, rose up and took down Franklin Regional, 9-6.

None of the players on the current Plum team, including Durst and fellow seniors Francesca Beighly, Melanie Meinke, Hannah Blanford and Brooke Kundla, have experienced a WPIAL playoff victory.

Two years ago, Plum, as the No. 2 seed, received a bye into the quarterfinals but lost 5-4 to West Allegheny. The Mustangs missed the playoffs in 2018.

“The seniors, the captains, everyone is working together for a common goal of the playoffs,” DiLonardo said. “They see this season as a great opportunity.”

Sophomore first baseman Mackenzie Lang, who is getting her first opportunity at varsity softball this year after the cancellation of last year’s spring season, has shown some pop in her bat over the first half.

She collected her team-leading fourth home run and 13th RBI against Penn Hills. She also homered in her first varsity at-bat in Plum’s 6-1 win over Fox Chapel on March 26, pounded a grand slam and finished with five RBIs against Gateway and homered against Armstrong.

“She is seeing the ball really well and making great contact,” DiLonardo said. “We knew for a while that she was going to be an important part of the team. She had a great start to her (varsity) career against Fox Chapel.”

Beighley and junior Ashley Polakovic are tied for the team lead in batting average at .400. Lang is batting .333, and junior Shianne Walker is hitting .300.

Durst, Beighly and junior Maura Marston each tallied two hits against Penn Hills, and Beighley and Melanie Meinke each drove in a pair of runs.

The game was close through five innings before Plum pulled away with four runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh.

“The hitting keeps coming along,” DiLonardo said. “Hopefully, this week, we start to see even more consistency throughout the lineup. Our goal is to win the week. If we win three games this week, we will be in good shape.”

Meinke complemented the offense against Penn Hills with 12 strikeouts, no walks and just four hits surrendered for her fifth win of the season.

The veteran pitcher sports a 1.74 earned-run average with 67 strikeouts against only eight walks over 48.1 innings.

“Melanie is throwing with confidence as a pitcher of her experience is expected,” DiLonardo said.

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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