Westmoreland softball preview: Teams infused with young talent

Wednesday, March 15, 2023 | 5:55 PM

Decked out in practice uniforms, a new custom put in place by coach Tina Madison and her staff, Hempfield had a structured look during a practice last week as softball players fielded sharp grounders and ran bases in a dimly lit auxiliary gym.

Large snowflakes fell outside.

That can mean only one thing. Well, two.

A new season is here, and Hempfield is a WPIAL contender in Class 6A again.

What else is new, right? Well, there is one thing: pitcher Riley Miller is back.

The Spartans did not have the rising standout in their 7-2 semifinal loss to Seneca Valley last year at Fox Chapel.

Riley, now a sophomore, injured her ankle during a 5-4 quarterfinal win over Norwin. But she is healthy now, and Hempfield returns a host of talent behind her.

“We want to win and go farther than we did last year,” Miller said. “We’re going to be pretty strong offensively. (The injury) kept me motivated.”

There is just one section now in the league’s largest classification. The top six out of nine teams will make the playoffs.

Miller was 11-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 126 strikeouts for Hempfield, which starts the year ranked No. 3 in 6A by TribLive HSSN.

“Injuries are hard and something the team needs to understand will happen,” said Madison, in her second season. “We are moving forward and not focused on what happened (in the past). We are excited and anxious for (Miller’s) return. She has grown in the offseason and has been working really hard to come back even stronger this year. I think you will see her be more comfortable in the circle since she has a year under her and isn’t a freshman any more.”

Hempfield, which finished 13-4, also returns sophomore catcher Allie Cervola, who is a college prospect as a shortstop in travel ball.

The Miller-Cervola battery has a year of experience together.

Other key returnees for the Spartans are junior outfielder Maggie Howard, a Georgetown commit; junior outfielder Peyton Heisler, who committed to Penn; along with senior infielder Mia Bandieramonte, junior infielder Sarah Podkul, junior designated player Hannah Uhrinek and junior first baseman Emily Griffith.

“Offensively, I feel we will be stronger with having another year of experience under us,” Madison said. “Our returners are big-time players. We have two committed Division I outfielders and a more experienced battery.”

What is scary for opponents is there is even more talent coming up. Madison said a 10-player crop of freshmen is “arguably one of the strongest classes to come into Hempfield.”

One of the promising freshman is Lauren Howard, a middle infielder, and Julia Varhola is a pitcher and utility player who also has shown flashes of talent.

Finding a spot for the freshmen, and blending them with upperclass players, will be the challenge for Madison and her staff.

“I will not be surprised if our opening day starting lineup may be different than our starting lineup by playoffs,” Madison said. “We have multiple options at every position, and whoever produces and earns their spot will be playing. Iron sharpens iron.”

Other top teams

Penn-Trafford went further than any local team last year as it reached the WPIAL championship and the PIAA semifinals in 5A. The Warriors (20-4) almost could taste a WPIAL title but lost on a home run. It fell to Armstrong both times, 6-5 and 3-2.

Armstrong, the WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up, is now in the same section with Penn-Trafford, Latrobe and Franklin Regional.

Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year Mia Smith is gone, so there is a pitching void to fill. But Penn-Trafford returns sophomore Cam Ponko, junior Mack Keenan, senior Bri Pusateri and others.

“We will hope to improve every game,” coach Denny Little said. “We have a plethora of young talent that can run, field and hit, including incoming freshmen. We lost some very integral players to graduation and injury, but I am confident we can compete.”

Senior shortstop Kylee Piconi suffered a season-ending knee injury during basketball season.

Norwin could challenge Hempfield behind a number of key hitters, including junior shortstop Bailey Snowberger (.448, 18 runs), a Holy Cross commit, along with senior catcher Madie Kessler (.362, 5 HR) and senior Alyssa McCormick, who could move into the pitcher’s circle. Kessler is a Saint Francis (Pa.) commit, and McCormick will play at Division II Fairmont State.

Another 5A contender looks to be Franklin Regional (13-7), which could be one of the area’s top hitting teams. Sophomore Toryn Fulton (.414, 7 HR, 30 RBI) joins sophomore Ciara Camacho in another solid outfield, and senior Madison Nguyen shows power at first base.

Yough has eight starters back, and coach Dutch Harvey said he expects more home runs to fly out of the park as the Cougars drop to 3A after reaching the 4A quarterfinals. Replacing pitcher Emma Augustine will be a task.

Senior outfielder McKenzie Pritts (.475) is a quality leadoff hitter, and sophomore Adoria Waldier shows power in her bat.

“I really expect this year’s team to contend for section title, WPIAL and to make the state playoffs and contend there,” Harvey said. “With 80% of our home run production returning and 83% of our RBI production returning, I would expect more home runs and more RBI.”

Best of the rest

Latrobe is another area playoff regular. The Wildcats (10-5) feature junior Kayla Williams and senior Josie Straigis, a pair of pitchers and infielders, as well as senior outfielder Sydney DeGram. … In 4A, watch Belle Vernon and junior outfielder Maren Metikosh, a Central Connecticut State commit who hit .557 with 14 doubles, five homers and 32 RBIs. She was the WPIAL 4A Player of the Year. Belle Vernon, ranked No. 4 to open the season, was a quarterfinalist. … Greensburg Salem features Seton Hall commit Gionnah Ruffner (.511), a junior catcher who will play in the outfield. … Senior Sophia Smithnosky and junior Addy Reese are among 3A Mt. Pleasant’s top players. … Southmoreland (14-5) has pitcher Maddie Brown back, along with standout shortstop Amarah McCutcheon (.339, 4 HR) and Makayla Etling. Brynn Charnesky (Waynesburg commit) returns after earning all-state honors at second base. … Junior Cheyenne Piper threw a perfect game last year for Ligonier Valley (14-4) and will get the pitching duties with star fireballer Maddie Griffin now at Youngstown State. Griffin, who struck out 134 and sported a 0.23 ERA despite a late-season hand injury, was the Rams’ only senior. … Senior Emma Henry returns to lead Greensburg Central Catholic (13-7). A Central Connecticut State commit, Henry helped the Centurions reach the WPIAL semifinals and the PIAA playoffs with a .548 average and 26 RBIs. She earned seven pitching wins.

Players to watch

Ciara Camacho, So., OF, Franklin Regional

Brynn Charnesky, Sr., INF, Southmoreland

Sydney DeGram, Sr., OF, Latrobe

Izzy DePalma, Sr., C, Derry

Sophia Doherty, So., 3B, Derry

Toryn Fulton, So., OF, Franklin Regional

Emma Henry, Sr., P, Greensburg Central Catholic

Maggie Howard, Jr., OF, Hempfield

Madie Kessler, Sr., C, Norwin

Amarah McCutcheon, Jr., SS, Southmoreland

Maren Metikosh, Sr., OF, Belle Vernon

Riley Miller, So., P, Hempfield

Madison Nguyen, Sr., 1B, Franklin Regional

Cheyenne Piper, So., P, Ligonier Valley

Cam Ponko, So., 3B, Penn-Trafford

McKenzie Pritts, Sr., OF, Yough

Gionnah Ruffner, Jr., C/CF, Greensburg Salem

Bailey Snowberger, Jr., SS, Norwin

Sophia Smithnosky, Sr., OF, Mt. Pleasant

Josie Straigis, Sr., P/IF, Latrobe

Kayla Williams, Jr., P, Latrobe

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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