They’re sisters of the Centre County soil who have now become the bedrock of the Penn State-Altoona softball program.
Products of Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola, they were mined from the talent veins that run throughout the county by Fred Caldwell, now the coach at Bellefonte. Joe Merilli inherited them when Caldwell left the Altoona program two years ago to take over the Lady Red Raiders.
So when he arrived at Altoona, Merilli already had P-O’s Kate Burge and Abby Showers and BEA’s Allie Simpson and Haley Giedroc on the roster. BEA’s Sidney Shultz followed them last fall.
And when the Lady Lions met Juniata in the first game of a doubleheader earlier this month, the entire infield was manned by those five players with Showers at third, Giedroc at short, Simpson at second and Shultz at first with Burge in the circle.
“The thing with the kids from Centre County is that they come here with really good backgrounds,” Merilli said. “We just put them in the right spot at the right time, and they go out there and perform. And with the P-O and BEA kids, they have played in big games — against each other and in district championships and even state playoffs. They play great competition, going against each other all of the time.
“I got to know the Centre County kids when I was coaching at Bishop Guilfoyle. I tried to schedule as many games against Centre County teams as I could. I wanted to play the best. That’s why we got good.”
The connection to Centre County doesn’t end with the current quintet. Raychel DeArmitt, a standout at Bellefonte, is now an assistant to Merilli after playing at Altoona for four years under Caldwell. She still ranks second in career strikeouts and third in wins and ERA.
She finds herself being more than a coach, however.
“They call me Mom,” she said with a laugh. “I do everything for them. They’re a great group of kids. They have so much enthusiasm.”
DeArmitt was part of the influx of county talent that Caldwell gathered at Altoona. Many of those names are all over the PSU-Altoona record books, including BEA’s Kelly Chambers who counts the career home run record among the many she owns.
“I loved it when I came here,” added DeArmitt, who graduated from PSU-Altoona in 2015. “We all became friends. They were my family.”
That camaraderie, that chemistry, is something every one of the current county grads cites when talking about her experience at Altoona.
“It’s such a great atmosphere here,” Giedroc said. “I love it. These girls are like family to me. I am so honored to be able to play with them. These have been the best couple of years in my life.”
And that’s from someone who thought she was going to play soccer instead of softball in college. Now she’s the team’s leading hitter with a .389 average.
Burge and Simpson are the seniors of the group, though — and so far this season it has fallen to them to lead from the front.
“We’re like the moms,” Burge said. “We show the younger kids around. But it’s really been fun to see them grow. It’s amazing how they’ve developed. Now they’re like a second family to me.”
All five of the local ladies have experienced some success at Altoona. Giedroc was called an “ESPN highlight show” by her coach. Showers is adjusting well to her new position at third base. Burge owns 13 career records. Shultz is wrapping up her freshman season.
And Simpson? She comes from a ball-playing family, so expectations have always been high. Her father, uncle and grandfather had long careers in the County League so she grew up knowing a bunt from a balk.
Still, playing at the Division III level took some adjustment.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” Simpson said. “But everyone dreams of being able to play softball in college, and it’s awesome that I’ve been able to do it. It’s just crazy that all of us girls (P-O and BEA) didn’t like each other at one time, and now we’re so close. It’s cool to think that they (P-O) pushed us in high school. I never thought I’d be playing with them. But it’s fun. We’re family now.”
Unlike Simpson, a senior, Shultz is only now finding that out as she wraps up her freshman campaign. She said the fact that the others were already at Penn State-Altoona made her decision to go there easier.
“I came in already knowing people,” she said. “I had played most of my varsity years with Haley, and I knew Abby from playing P-O. So it’s been really good. Kate and Ally do a good job of leading the team.”
Next year, she and Showers will be the only county players in the program. Simpson and Burge will have graduated, and Giedroc has to transfer to the University Park campus to continue in her major.
But they’ll have a memory bank filled with their experiences at Altoona.
As Merilli put it, “When you get to college, softball is a great place to make friends.”
Giedroc: .389 batting aerage, 20 runs, 42 hits, eight doubles, two triples, three homers and 15 RBIs
Showers: .343 batting average, 11 runs, 37 hits, four doubles, a triple and 16 RBIs
Burge: .264 batting average, five runs, 23 hits, 11 doubles and 16 RBIs; 1.57 ERA, 15-8, 1 save. 165 innings, 134 hits, 58 runs, 37 earned runs, 51 walks 131 strikeouts.
Simpson: .207 batting average, seven runs, 19 hits, a double, a triple, 11 RBIs
Shultz: .158 batting average, one run, six hits; 6.56 ERA, 0-2, 16 innings 25 hits, 15 runs, 15 earned runs, nine walks, two strikeouts.