St. Joseph softball brings back plenty of experience

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Thursday, March 19, 2020 | 4:53 PM


The St. Joseph softball program enjoyed a two-year run to the WPIAL playoffs in 2017 and ‘18, the first two such seasons in its history.

The Spartans played a pair of postseason games both times, winning in the first round each time and finishing the two years with a combined 21 victories.

Last season was an experience in growing pains after the graduation of six seniors.

But with a core of returning starters back from last year’s playoff near-miss — St. Joseph finished 5-7 in Section 3-1A — there is a sense of optimism from the players and second-year coach Al Swanson.

The optimism from the preseason being put into game action is in limbo, however, as the PIAA and WPIAL, in conjunction with the two-week closure of schools set in place last Friday by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, suspended all athletic activities in an effort to help combat the spread of covid-19.

“It’s frustrating to see some of the progress we’ve made since the start of practices put on hold,” Swanson said. “There is so much uncertainty right now. It’s especially tough for the seniors who don’t know if they will get to play their final years.”

Those seniors hoping to play their final seasons are returning starters Ava Swanson, Molly Coleman and Maddie Willard, as well as team newcomer Lauren Troiano.

Ava Swanson, who missed a majority of last season because of an ankle injury, will step into the role of the main pitcher, replacing the graduated Shelby Gogal. Swanson also will play shortstop.

“She has to step up for us,” coach Swanson said. “Her pitching will be key for us. She is hoping for a big season after not being able to be in the lineup most of last season. It was really frustrating for her.

Coleman, who hit .306 last season, will anchor the outfield in center. Willard (.308) is back at first base.

A pair of juniors, Kelsey DuVall and Kassandra O’Hara, have experience as starters.

DuVall, who led the team in hitting at .375, returns to behind the plate. An ACL injury suffered in gym class after last season required surgery and slowed her offseason progress.

Coach Swanson said she is a full go this spring, but he expects to err on the side of caution and give her breaks to rest the knee.

O’Hara, who is expected to again be at third base, also will catch as well as play in the outfield, coach Swanson said.

Freshman Noelle Bigenho (third base, outfield) is expected to contribute right away.

Sophomore Stella Swanson hit .364 and led the team in RBI, runs and walks and hopes to build on her strong debut. She will be at shortstop and will be the secondary pitcher.

“We have that good group of players back with the experience of what varsity games are all about,” coach Swanson said.

Stella Swanson was one of several players, along with DuVall and Bigenho, to make the transition to softball after helping lead the Spartans girls basketball team to the WPIAL playoffs.

“The newcomers will be important, and we’ve worked a lot with them on their hitting and fielding, just everything,” Stella Swanson said. “They’ve been pretty excited about the season and are improving, and we’re excited to see what they will be able to do (in games).”

Coach Swanson said second base and right and left field were and are open positions with competitions alive for those spots. Those hoping to crack the lineup at one of those positions include Troiano, returning sophomore Leeann Parsi and freshmen Katie White, Lizzie Skrinjar and Julie Wilson.

“If and when we do come back, we’ll probably be slammed right into section play,” coach Swanson said. “We might be flying by the seat of our pants at a couple of those positions and learning along the way.”

Coach Swanson said the team, if it can put everything together, has a shot at getting back to the playoffs.

It will have the task of negotiating a Section 3-1A schedule that includes defending section champion Leechburg (17-3, 12-0) and runner-up Springdale (13-4, 9-3) as well as 2019 playoff qualifiers Jeannette (9-6, 7-5) and Greensburg Central Catholic (9-8, 7-5).

The Blue Devils are gunning for a WPIAL-record 34th consecutive playoff berth.

“Again, the keys are the holes we have to fill and how the pitching does,” coach Swanson said.

“Leechburg (Emma Ritchie) and Springdale (Alexis Hrivnak) have those great pitchers, and they will most likely be the favorites for the top two spots. If any pitcher is on, they can beat anyone else in the section that day. Every team is one or two injuries away from not being as good, so staying healthy will be the key.”

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

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