Unbeaten Mt. Pleasant overcomes loss of Poulich to reach WPIAL final

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Wednesday, May 29, 2019 | 12:01 AM


Mt. Pleasant softball players, coaches and fans held their collective breath when Courtney Poulich dropped to the ground, writhing in pain.

It was the Section 1-4A opener at home against Indiana, and Poulich stretched out to pull in a potential putout at first base. The attempted stab was more stabbing: the sophomore did a full split but the move proved too jarring for her left hamstring, which snapped and pulled away from her leg bone.

“I heard pop, pop,” Poulich said. “I felt like I got shot.”

Barely three games in, Poulich was done for the year.

In theory, losing a player of her caliber — she is a Division I Liberty commit and a team captain — could stamp out a team’s confidence and send a season, no matter how early or promising, sideways.

That was not the case at Mt. Pleasant. Far from it, in fact.

While the injury was a lot to process for coach Chris Brunson and Co., the Vikings have surged to become one of the tops teams in the — you name it — nation, state and WPIAL.

If someone had told Brunson he’d lose Poulich, his big-swinging clean-up hitter, and his team would immediately recover and take a perfect record into Thursday’s WPIAL Class 4A championship, “I’d have called you crazy,” the first-year coach said. “I am really proud of our kids for not giving up, taking the opportunity and running with it.”

Mt. Pleasant (17-0), the top seed in the district and the 18th-ranked team in the nation by MaxPreps, will take on No. 2 Elizabeth Forward (16-3) at 2:15 p.m. at soggy Peterswood Park in Peters Township.

Hempfield (15-6) will play North Allegheny (15-6) at the same time on another field at Peterswood Park for the Class 6A title.

Poulich will be there to root for her Vikings teammates, continually impressed by their efforts in her absence.

“We have an amazing group of girls,” said Poulich, who radiates with positivity. “I have tried to be the best teammate I can be; supporting the team and doing whatever they need me to do. So many girls were ready.”

Poulich will be six weeks post-surgery on Friday. By then, she still could be celebrating with teammates as preparation begins to turn toward the PIAA playoffs.

She still has seven or eight months, she said, before she can resume softball-related workouts. In 20 games last season, Poulich had 19 hits, a home run, three doubles and 16 runs. Her sister, Chloe, now at Towson, led the team with 31 hits, nine triples and carried a .463 average.

“You can’t replace a player like Courtney, a Division-I caliber athlete,” Chris Brunson said. “But we’ve had a number of girls step up. I told them this can go one of two ways: you can pout about it or you can work to get better. They rallied around that.”

It’s tough to imagine one player having such an effect on a lineup, but Poulich did. Brunson had to mix and match his infielders, and try to replace power in the middle of the order.

Other underclass players came to the rescue, and showed how valuable their roles will be to the vitality of a strong program looking to stay in the race.

Mt. Pleasant has played in five straight WPIAL semifinals and has won WPIAL (2016) and PIAA (2017) titles in recent years. The ‘16 trip was the Vikings’ only other finals appearance.

Freshman Katie Hutter (.429, 27 hits, 11 RBIs) has fast-emerged as a key hitter and outfielder, while sophomore Mary Smithnosky (.548, 34 hits, 12 RBIs) has been solid at the plate and as a No. 2 pitcher to senior ace Carolyn Alincic.

Sophomore shortstop Hannah Gnibus (.333, 15 runs) is an anchor defensively, while junior Sydney Kanuch blankets plenty of ground in center field.

“We knew we’d have to fill in gaps,” Hutter said. “Courtney has such a big bat. There was no downfall. We all worked harder.”

Smithnosky, sophomore Lexi Puskar and junior Autumn Shogun have filled in at first base, with Shogun seeing the most time there of late.

Haylie Brunson has played outfield, second base, shortstop and third, while coach Brunson calls an unsettled left field spot “a seven-headed monster.”

And don’t forget the departure of would-be senior catcher Mya Klejka, who opted to run track instead this season. Sophomore Lexis Shawley has filled in admirably.

Brunson said his lineup still is not set in stone as the Vikings gear up for their most challenging stretch of the year.

“We haven’t had an easy game all year,” he said. “Even in our 10-0 games, we’ve had to score late to take control. We’ve played a lot of tough teams to help get us ready for where we are now.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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