Trio of Alle-Kiski softball teams want deeper playoff runs

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 | 11:30 PM

John Kinnamon got more than a fair share of strange looks from his Apollo-Ridge softball players when he declared playoffs as a team goal last spring.

He seems a lot saner now.

In the clearest sign of one year making a major difference, the softball programs at formerly struggling Alle-Kiski Valley schools such as Apollo-Ridge, Kiski Area and St. Joseph now expect more than just a playoff appearance, which all three had last season. Now the goals are section titles, deep playoff runs and even — WPIAL championships?

“When we talk about our goal this year, to win section, it's within reach,” Kinnamon said. “If they perform, it is within reach. It's been 30 years, and I know nothing about the team that won section 30 years ago. But it's not crazy to say it now. It's the environment.”

And it's a very different environment than the one Kinnamon found when he assumed the coaching job in 2015, in the midst of a 23-game losing streak. The Vikings' playoff drought stretched back more than two decades.

That atmosphere was certainly familiar to Kiski Area, which had a six-season playoff drought before qualifying in Class 5A last season; and to St. Joseph, which had never made the postseason before 2017 and has eight winless seasons in the past two decades.

“(My) first two seasons, we worked hard and we were doing the right work, but we weren't seeing the results on the scoreboard,” Kiski Area coach Maggie Jones said. “To keep those girls still confident in their abilities, we focused on the word ‘perseverance' to know that we're going to go through struggles, but eventually we'll get to the other side and the struggles will have been worth it.”

Greater accomplishments make for greater expectations for those teams entering the season, especially as all three return a significant number of contributors.

“We're expecting to make the playoffs now, not hoping to make the playoffs,” said St. Joseph coach Dan Edgar, whose team has seven seniors, five who started as freshmen. “We've got a senior-heavy team, seven starters returning from last year. The energy's high, and all of the girls are very excited.”

Kinnamon said his team is adjusting to a new role as a favorite after previously operating as an underdog. The Vikings played St. Joseph in their opener, dropping a 14-12 decision as the Spartans rallied in the sixth inning.

The game served as a confidence boost for St. Joseph and potentially a wake-up call for Apollo-Ridge.

Kiski Area still is waiting to make its season debut, given the constant postponements for inclement weather. But the Cavaliers' excitement is palpable compared to previous seasons.

“It was a lot more positive feeling (last season),” Kiski Area senior Kelsey Sofaly said. “The previous two seasons, everyone was kind of upset and sad. When we started to win, people got happier. It's just a better environment to be in.”

The question now is how well the teams can follow up their breakthrough seasons. St. Joseph beat Cornell in the first round of the WPIAL Class A playoffs — the first postseason win in school history — and Apollo-Ridge and Kiski Area dropped their playoff openers.

“We want to make the playoffs, but winning championships (is the No. 1 goal),” Jones said. “We have such a great program at Kiski with the wrestling program that sets such a standard for what all of Kiski athletic programs should look like. And we want that: We want that for Kiski Area softball.”

For now, all the teams can do is wait — at least until Mother Nature lets them get on the field.

“It's just going to be a fun ride,” Kinnamon said. “We're taking the next step, but if we're on the second step, there's still eight more to go. I'm just real excited to see what they can do.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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