Undefeated Leechburg on verge of clinching playoff berth for 33rd straight season

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Friday, April 26, 2019 | 7:18 PM


Debbie Young heard the murmuring around Leechburg begin recently: The Blue Devils are back at it.

Tax day just passed, and another April certainty appears ready to hit within the next week: another Leechburg softball playoff appearance. The No. 2 Blue Devils (10-0, 8-0) still are awaiting their clinching victory, but at this point it seems a mere formality.

When that win comes, Leechburg will extend its WPIAL-record postseason streak, which stands at 32 years.

“I think there’s just something about Leechburg softball,” said Young, now in her fifth season as Leechburg’s coach. “I think that sums the whole experience up. I don’t know what it is. … It’s a small town, and it’s a hometown thing.”

The run began in 1987 under former coach Jim Oberdorf, who coached the Blue Devils from 1982-2014, winning 544 games, three WPIAL championships and a pair of PIAA titles. Young took over in 2015 and kept the playoff run going, leading Leechburg to section titles and WPIAL semifinal appearances each of the last two years.

The streak carried through hundreds of players, through mothers and daughters and sisters who played for Leechburg over the past 30-some years. That included three of Young’s daughters.

“They start at T-ball, and they start watching the older girls playing and that’s the goal as a young girl,” Young said. “I see it in the kids that I teach. … They’re just waiting and champing at the bit to play high school ball. It’s just something that you do at Leechburg.”

If ever a year came that Leechburg’s streak appeared in jeopardy, maybe that was this year. After all, the Blue Devils were replacing four-year starting pitcher organ Pierce, who won 58 games in her career, as well as two of their top hitters in outfielder Daesha Knight and third baseman Hannah Berry.

First baseman Gracie Reinke, another top hitter from last season, hasn’t played yet this season because of an ankle injury.

Yet Leechburg, which Young called “quietly unassuming,” keeps rolling. The Blue Devils are outscoring opponents 144-19, with 10 of their games ending via the mercy rule.

“Playing Jeannette first, we were all shaking and were like, we’re going to do good,” said sophomore shortstop McKenna Pierce, the younger sister of Morgan. “We went out there and we made a statement (winning 10-0), so it was like, we’ve got this.”

Sophomore Emma Ritchie plugged into the pitching vacancy left behind by Morgan Pierce and has excelled there and in the cleanup spot. Senior Kristen Knapp, a four-year starter, continues to provide leadership at catcher and production out of the top spot of the batting order. Keira Jones and McKenna Pierce are stepping up in their second years as starters.

But new starters like senior first baseman Aubry Skeel are contributing, as well. Skeel ranks as one of the Blue Devils’ leading hitters despite playing on a torn ACL.

“A lot of us played ASA ball and tournament ball, too,” Pierce said. “I think having that experience, it was a normal transition into high school because when you’re playing in tournament ball you’re playing almost the same competition you’re playing in high school ball, you just have a little older girls. But I think it’s the training we have, and it’s our parents a lot, too.”

Leechburg hasn’t faced a lot of tests yet, but Young considered two games important: a 19-11 victory over Springdale where the Blue Devils needed to rally twice and Ritchie faced her most adversity in the circle, and a 2-1 nonsection win over Karns City, a rematch of an 11-1 loss from last season.

“I think that everyone held each other up, and everyone had each other’s backs,” Pierce said. “If someone made a mistake, there was always someone there to pick them up.”

Young said Reinke could return soon to boost the Blue Devils, who finished one win shy of the PIAA playoffs each of the last two years after losing in the WPIAL semifinals and consolation games.

“(Last year’s 8-7 consolation loss to Union) was one of the best games that we’ve had in my tenure here,” Young said. “We looked at that as a playoff game. Hopefully, that will end in our favor this year. I think we’re sitting pretty nice, playoff-wise, so we’ll see what happens.”

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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