Thomas Jefferson’s state softball title capped special season in memory of former coach

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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | 9:50 AM


The 2024 season is one players and coaches on the Thomas Jefferson softball team will never forget.

For the first time in the 65-year history of the high school, there is a state champion at TJ in a girls team sport.

Thomas Jefferson ended an improbable postseason run June 13 by edging District 2 titlist Pittston Area, 2-1, in eight innings in the PIAA Class 5A championship game at Penn State.

“This team was gritty and hard-working with a never-going-to-quit attitude,” TJ coach Heidi Karcher said. “The girls had the ability to adapt to road trips and come off the bus ready to work and win. I’m very thankful for the school and community for their support during this Cinderella story.

“I think the softball team’s success over the past 10 years has made a mark in the community. The state title kind of seals the deal. Girls know I am a tough coach and sometimes they come in as freshmen a bit hesitant, but once done and time passes, they know that I and my staff genuinely care about them and want them to be successful student-athletes.”

The Jaguars dedicated the 2024 season to the memory of former coach John “Hoppy” Mitruski, who was involved in the program for four decades.

A TJ assistant in recent years, the beloved Mitruski passed away following last season; Karcher presented his daughter Megan with a gold medal at the PIAA postgame ceremony.

What does it mean to TJ’s veteran field boss, who played softball at Penn State in the early 1990’s, to win the title for Mitruski after dedicating the season to him?

“I can’t even explain to you what it means to me. He was my right-hand man,” Karcher said. “We all agreed on dedicating the season to Hoppy. I asked Megan if I could have his dugout decorations so we could continue his tradition.

“Matt Betler, an industrial tech teacher, made a banner for the dugout. But as Megan continually tells the girls, ‘You are not playing for him but rather with him.’”

The season marked the first appearance in the state finals for the Jaguars, who finished 16-8.

Senior 1B Taylor Karpac drove in the winning run in the championship game with a clutch single through a drawn-in infield in the bottom of the eighth inning. TJ had loaded the bases with no outs.

“I was nervous because I hadn’t done much in my at-bats,” Karpac said. “I knew I had to take advantage of the moment; and then I almost didn’t run to first I was so excited. It’s very exciting; at first our season was a little rocky. We played for (Hoppy) all season.”

Karpac was one of only two seniors in the starting lineup against Pittston Area.

“Taylor is calm, cool and collected,” Karcher said. “I call her an anesthesiologist because they need to have a steady hand and not get rattled; the best person to have in that game situation to exude confidence while staying steadfast.”

When junior 2B Morgan Alisesky, who started things off with a single, crossed home plate with the winning run, the TJ on-field celebration began.

“Jeez, I can’t even explain how proud I am of this team’s performance,” Alisesky said. “This season was dedicated to Hoppy. We played our hearts out and won it for him and I know he’s looking down on us and is very happy for the team.

“Our team had a drive to win it all since the very beginning. We really became closer, and I think that’s what led to our success. We were there to pick each other up when we were having a rough day. We went into the first, second and third round of playoffs and everyone wasn’t expecting us to do what we did. We might have lost our WPIAL championship, but we had to finish the job and that’s what we did.”

Aubrey Shaffer, a right-handed freshman, was the winning pitcher in a complete-game performance. Shaffer struck out 10, allowed seven hits, walked four, and labeled the team’s performance as “amazing” in 2024.

“This was one of the best teams I’ve ever been on,” the 15-year-old hurler said. “We came back from everyone’s doubts; all the girls were so confident and dedicated, and everyone was playing for Hoppy. Postseason was the highlight; we made history.

“The win still hasn’t actually hit me yet. Everyone stepped up when needed; everything counted. Coming into this year I knew some of the girls from travel and from previous years of softball and knew we were gonna go far. I knew we had a strong team and that no matter what happened, the girls and coaches would make it a fun time win or lose.”

Shaffer retired seven of the first eight batters she faced — five on strikeouts — and was lauded as the “player of the game” by PCN Sports.

“Her discipline and work ethic are her strengths,” Karcher said. “Aubrey’s sense of routine with preparing for games is crucial to her performance.”

After the Patriots (21-2) tied it in the third, Shaffer retired the next seven batters in a row. She worked out of jams in the last three innings as the visitors left seven runners stranded.

“Aubrey has great energy,” Karcher said. “She’s the rock on our team. That’s just a testament to her and her family.”

The Jaguars punched out eight hits against Pittston Area senior Gianna Adams, a CMU recruit who fanned 14. Adams has been honored twice as the Pennsylvania 5A Player of the Year.

Before the championship game, Adams was 20-1 with a 0.33 ERA with 273 strikeouts and 18 walks. Plus, she was a .400 hitter.

TJ’s Olivia Stock, a junior 3B, delivered one of the game’s key hits when she tripled to start the bottom of the first inning. Senior CF Zoe Krizan, a Drexel signee, gave the Jaguars an early 1-0 lead with a sacrifice fly.

“It’s amazing,” Krizan said. “We’ve been here for each other all year. It’s like a Cinderella story. This whole season we played for Hoppy. I hope he is proud; I know he is. I believe he was with us this whole season, just in a different way. Playing for Hoppy definitely helped us fight through any obstacle we faced. I miss him every day, but I can say we played this season with the heart and effort he always preached about, and that’s all that matters. And with that heart and effort, we brought home a state championship title.

“I always knew we had a talented team. Prior to playoffs, we had quite a few loses that hurt us, especially for WPIAL seeding. It seemed like we just couldn’t get all the pieces of puzzle together at once. But we definitely started to figure things out, fighting adversity and playing as a team. I think we shocked the softball community and made a great story to tell.”

Karpac and Alisesky finished with two hits against the Patriots. Stock and juniors Alayna Grese (DP/1B), Alison Chalovich (C) and Hannah Alonso (LF) all had one hit.

TJ returned to the PIAA playoffs for the first time since 2018 and relied on several players in its first two wins.

Krizan and Chalovich combined for five hits and nine RBIs in leading the Jaguars past District 3 runner-up Solanco, 17-4, in the first round. Alisesky went 5 for 5.

In the quarterfinals, TJ beat District 1 runner-up West Chester East, 3-1. Alonso was 3 for 3 with an RBI, Alisesky had two hits and sophomore SS Addi Bracco delivered a tiebreaking two-run double in the sixth.

Considering the situation, the Jaguars’ one-run win in the PIAA semifinal round undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest victories in program history — just below the winning effort against Pittston.

TJ dug out from an early hole to edge District 6 titlist Central Mountain, 9-8, on June 10 at Mt. Aloysius College. CM finished 16-7 overall.

Krizan had five RBIs in the dramatic victory; Alisesky clouted the go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the sixth.

“It was tough being down 6-0, but it was early and we knew we could come back,” Karcher said. “We just kept fighting. We worked so hard for this. We knew we had a really good team early in the season, we just had to come together. We’ve been doing it all year for Hoppy.”

TJ began its stunning comeback when Krizan cracked a three-run double in the third to make it 6-3. Two innings later, Krizan and Grese belted solo home runs to bring the Jaguars to within 8-6.

Alisesky knocked in Bracco with the eventual game-winning tally.

Shaffer surrendered only one earned run and had five strikeouts, including her 100th in 2024, in the first inning.

The Jaguars ended the regular season at 9-7 then tore through the playoffs winning seven of eight games, including four straight in the PIAA tournament (and traveling more than 1,300 miles roundtrip).

“We are the road warriors,” Karcher said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you end up.”

The No. 10 seed Jaguars defeated South Fayette, 6-4, North Hills, 6-4, and Latrobe, 4-2, in the WPIAL playoffs before suffering their only postseason loss to Armstrong, 9-3, in the championship game at Cal (Pa.).

The TJ girls went on an impressive WPIAL playoff run that lasted three games and extended through 5 1/3 innings against No. 1 Armstrong. That’s when the River Hawks, who averaged 9.4 runs, finally were able to flex their muscles.

TJ led 3-2 thanks to the pinpoint accuracy of Shaffer, who allowed two runs, five hits and only one walk through five frames and was supported by a sound defense.

Specifically, freshman Sophia Janosko made a pair of highlight-reel diving catches in right field for the Jaguars.

But Armstrong erupted for seven runs in the bottom of the sixth and went on to claim its second Class 5A title in three years. The River Hawks improved to 18-3.

It was TJ’s first trip to the WPIAL finals in a decade. Stock and Alisesky each had two hits. Grese, with two RBIs, and Bracco drove in TJ’s runs.

Shaffer tossed a four-hitter and walked only one against Latrobe. Bracco’s two-run single sparked a three-run uprising in the second. Freshman INF Layla Patterson also had two RBIs for TJ, which was honored as the Trib HSSN Softball Team of the Week.

Senior OF Emma DeSimone doubled twice and had three RBIs against North Hills. Alisesky and Krizan both had two hits and junior C Alison Chalovich drove in two runs.

Against South Fayette, Krizan smacked a two-run homer, Bracco had pair of doubles and one RBI, and Alisesky contributed a double and one RBI.

Armstrong defeated No. 16 Western Beaver, 9-5, No. 8 Connellsville, 4-1, and No. 4 Penn-Trafford, 8-6, prior to reaching the district finals for a fourth straight season. The River Hawks finished second in the PIAA in 2021 and ‘22.

TJ wrapped up third place in Section 4 this year with a 6-4 record, one game behind co-champs Connellsville and Trinity.

The TJ softball squad joined the school’s football, hockey and boys soccer teams to capture PIAA or PIHL state championships, with the football team’s 2019 and 2020 crowns being the most recent.

“This win was a team win,” Karcher said. “Everyone had a role whether it was on defense or offense. I understand Taylor had the game-winning hit and that is awesome, but there were other plays as well that led our team to be successful that day.

“To (go) from being a 10 seed in the WPIALs to state champions is amazing. It’s an awesome feeling. Being a student-athlete is a true testament to dedication and teamwork.”

TJ’s assistants this year were Haleigh Karcher, Amanda McHugh, Kylie Hartbauer and Skylar Meier.

WJHSD public relations contributed to this article.

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