St. Joseph softball seeking 3rd straight WPIAL playoff appearance

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Thursday, March 21, 2019 | 8:10 PM


St. Joseph is coming off the two most successful softball seasons in school history, campaigns that established the Spartans as a high-caliber playoff team in WPIAL Class A, and they come into the spring with an important goal.

But instead of talking a third consecutive playoff appearance, or a push for a championship, St. Joseph is setting its sights on the most basic goal: the love of the game.

The Spartans just want to have fun.

“I told the girls at the beginning of the season, I know a couple of the teams that we faced last year, even if they were down or we were down, as long as we kept the spirits up and we had all the girls cheering in the dugout, it’s a better experience for everyone,” junior Ava Swanson said.

It’s a message that begins at the top with new coach Al Swanson and carries down to the rest of the team, which comes into the season with a young and green lineup after the graduation of six senior starters.

The Spartans, who made the WPIAL playoffs each of the last two seasons — the first two appearances in school history — and won a game in both trips, expect some growing pains early on as they work some of their underclassmen into the lineup. But they also believe in the power of positivity.

“There’s always something to take away from every game, so you’re more likely to learn from it if you enjoy doing it,” senior Shelby Gogal said.

St. Joseph has three key returnees it can turn to for leadership in Gogal as the No. 1 pitcher, a position she held during each of the past two playoff runs, Swanson at shortstop and junior Molly Coleman in the outfield.

“It’s especially hard for me because stepping up into a leadership position was a big step for me,” Swanson said. “I really looked up to the girls that left last year and tried to learn things from them. Going just from sophomore year to this junior year was a big step for me … but it hasn’t been too bad so far.”

Departed seniors include Anna Swierczewski, a third baseman and secondary pitcher; Serena Edgar at shortstop; Calley Neelan at catcher; Courtney Fogle at first base; and Alex Jones and Chloe Kurpakus in the outfield.

As it begins preparation for the season, St. Joseph is trying to find the right players to fill some of those vacancies; the Spartans used Monday’s scrimmage with Burrell to put players in different spots to locate the best fits.

“I’ve still got to get a couple positions finalized, first and third (base) being the key ones for me at this point,” Al Swanson said. “I think we’re going to be pretty good the rest of the way around as far as who’s going to be playing where, but we’ve still got to get those two corner positions settled in a little more detail than what we have right now.

“This was an excellent day to move people around. We had some people make some plays in certain areas, so I thought that was excellent.”

Ava Swanson will fill Swierczewski’s shoes as St. Joseph’s secondary pitcher. Sophomore Hannah Kipp and freshman Stella Swanson are among the younger players who could step up in new roles this season, Al Swanson said.

“A lot of the people who left last year had a lot of experience,” Gogal said. “We just have to make sure that everybody knows what’s going on, what to do with the ball and reminding them over and over again that it helps, but they need experience to learn.”

St. Joseph is playing in a realigned Section 3-A, with rival Riverview, who tied the Spartans for second place in the section last season, jumping up to Class 2A and Bishop Canevin moving to a new section.

Newcomers Springdale and Greensburg Central Catholic will join St. Joseph in the new section along with holdovers Leechburg, Ellis School, Jeannette and Geibel.

The Spartans are ready to let the fun begin.

“If you don’t have fun, then what kind of game is it?” Al Swanson said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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