Young Thomas Jefferson softball lineup looks to surprise in Class 5A

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Sunday, April 4, 2021 | 11:01 AM


There is no mystery behind the success of the Thomas Jefferson softball program.

“We are looking to replace a talented group of seniors with highly talented freshmen, sophomores and juniors,” TJ coach Heidi Karcher said

It sounds like the definition of a rock-solid, winning program that reloads rather than rebuilds.

Karcher greeted four returning starters to this year’s team. They are senior Lily Rockwell at first base and the entire outfield — seniors Claire Whalen in center and Paige Truax in left and junior Graci Fairman in right.

“I expect this season to be challenging for us because we are such a young team,” Rockwell said. “But the girls on this team are tough, and I wouldn’t want to lead any other group of girls alongside my other seniors.

“We may be a young team, but I definitely wouldn’t count us out. I want to have fun this season and go as far as we possibly can.”

Whalen shared similar sentiments.

“We have a young team, but the talent we have is unreal.” Whalen said. “We are all looking forward to the challenges that moving back up to (Class) 5A bring. Despite the young lineup, I definitely think that we will be in every game we play.”

Along with the four returning starters, TJ’s early season lineup is expected to consist of sophomore pitcher Alyssa McCormick, juniors Savannah Mallozzi (3B) and Emma Stock (2B), plus freshmen Zoe Krizan (SS) and Taylor Karpac (C).

“Emma Stock took two years off; it seems like she never left,” Karcher said. “And Zoe Krizan has been a pleasant surprise. She’s stepped up and is working hard.

“Claire Whalen’s arm strength has improved, and Paige Truax is more powerful now swinging the bat.”

Two other top pitchers are sophomore Kendall Pielin and junior Brianna Kibe. Jordan Snyder, a senior catcher, has been vying for playing time behind the plate.

There are four seniors, seven juniors, 10 sophomores and 10 freshmen in the TJ softball program this year. What effect did losing the entire 2020 season have on the program?

“No effect on the drive and passion for the game,” Karcher said, “but replacing four senior starters is going to be tough. And we’re moving up a section.”

Rockwell, who has a 4.0 GPA and is a member of the National Honor Society, student council, TJ vs. Cancer and Big Jag Little Cub, said the Jaguars got off to a late start due to pandemic protocol.

“The pandemic has affected the program in so many ways,” Rockwell said. “We started our practices later than usual due to other winter sports still being in season. Although this could have been a major issue because our team is so young, we were super fortunate to have many talented players that will help us succeed this season.

“Also, if we are not actively playing on the field, we must have a mask on at all times. This has not been an issue for our team as we would do anything to be able to ensure our season. After last season getting cut short, the main priority of the team is to stay healthy and follow the rules so we can play as many games as possible.”

Whalen has a 4.09 GPA and is a member of the NHS and TJ vs. Cancer. She and her teammates sorely missed not having a 2020 season.

“We had our season taken away from us, so this year the team is appreciating every practice, every workout and every day we have together,” Whalen said. “We are focused on being able to have a season so we have been abiding by all the new rules and regulations that come with the pandemic.

“It has definitely been an adjustment, but it is one that we are happy to make if it means we can play.”

The Jaguars were in Section 2-4A in previous years. They are again in Section 2 but in Class 5A. TJ’s’ team bus will be chalking up the mileage in 2021; section foes consist of Albert-Gallatin, Connellsville, Gateway, Latrobe and Penn-Trafford.

“Two of our other seniors, Paige Truax and Lily Rockwell, and I played our freshman year when the team competed in the WPIAL championship and made a run in the state playoffs,” Whalen said. “We have all agreed we have some unfinished business in 5A and are hoping to make a run like we did our freshman year.

“Going into this year reminds me of going into my freshman year. Very little was expected of us, but a couple of freshmen, a sophomore pitcher and good senior leadership led us to the WPIAL final and to the final four in the state playoffs. We are all excited to have a season and plan to take it one game at a time.”

Karcher took over as TJ’s coach in 2013 and led the Jaguars to a WPIAL championship the following year.

TJ has advanced to the past four WPIAL playoffs, finishing as a WPIAL runner-up in 2018.

“We’re eager to get back on the diamond and hoping to make the playoffs like everyone else,” Karcher said prior to her team’s resounding 13-0 win on opening day March 26 at Moon.

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