Yough softball returns 7 starters, expects championship-caliber season

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Friday, March 20, 2020 | 8:55 PM


Yough boasts one of the steadiest, most successful softball programs in the WPIAL, but the Cougars entered spring practice with an unusual feeling: skepticism.

Seven starters return from a team that finished 13-6 last season, placed second to Mt. Pleasant in Section 1-4A and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals.

But none of that made senior catcher and four-year starter Hannah Christner, who also plays first base, feel any better about Yough’s prospects.

“After the first practice, in my head, I was thinking, ‘This is going to be a rough year,’ ” Christner said.

For Yough, a rough season means losing early in the WPIAL playoffs, such as last year when the Cougars were eliminated in a 1-0 loss to Thomas Jefferson.

“That really was an early exit for us. That’s not something the girls are used to,” coach Art “Dutch” Harvey said. “The expectations are always high here, and I think a lot of these kids are disappointed with last season. It goes to show how one bad game can end it.”

And one good performance, even in a scrimmage, can change things.

Memories of Yough’s first practice quickly evaporated for Christner, Harvey and the rest of the team within one turn of the batting order in a scrimmage against Latrobe. Harvey said the Cougars went seven batters before getting an out.

“We went out there and did what we did, and it blew my mind,” Christner said. “It felt good. We found out some of our freshmen are players.”

Yough’s new-found optimism, however, was tempered when the PIAA announced the start of spring sports season would be delayed at least two weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Cougars hope the delay does not cool off the bats.

“I’m hoping the PIAA plays the season and gives us a week to get ready,” Harvey said. “Honestly, we could get in 10 (section) games in about two-and-a-half weeks. We can get it done. I just hope we get to.”

Yough will rely on sophomore pitcher Emma Augustine to get things done.

Augustine replaces Kierra Waywood, a member of the Cal (Pa.) softball team. Whether Augustine matches Waywood’s senior-season numbers — she posted an 0.65 ERA with 169 strikeouts in 129 innings — remains to be seen, but Harvey said the former starting outfielder is capable of helping Yough back to its previous heights. The Cougars won a PIAA title in 2016 and were WPIAL runners-up in ’15 and ’17.

“Maybe the best part is nobody’s really seen her pitch, yet. Teams don’t know about her,” Harvey, who has a 94-30 career record, said. “She worked pretty hard over the offseason. She has a lot of speed, a lot of movement.”

And a lot of experience support around her.

Besides Christner and Augustine, Yough returns outfielders Hadley Sleith, Savannah Manns and Sam McGhee. Kaylyn Odelli moves from shortstop to catcher, and utility player Marin Sleith is out after having surgery but could return if the season resumes. Sophomore Nevaeh Chopp, who started at second base last season, will not play because of repeated concussions.

Add promising freshmen McKenzie Pritts and Hannah Hixson to the mix, and the Cougars expect to contend with Mt. Pleasant and an improving Highlands in the section. But Yough’s sights are set beyond section play.

“One of our first goals is to beat Mt. Pleasant,” Christner said. “We have to keep a strong field behind our pitcher to do it and string some hits together. If we stay motivated, I think we can definitely have a better year than last year.”

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