No county teams brought home a state championship last season — but more than one has its eyes on the trophy this season.
Centre County is arguably the softball capitol of the state, and three of the five area teams reached the state playoffs last season. Both Bellefonte and Philipsburg-Osceola reached the quarterfinals last year in their respective classes, and Bald Eagle Area fell in a first-round matchup. They’re all aiming to return to the postseason this season, and the Lady Little Lions — who came up one win short of states — are looking to join them
The only team to finish below .500 last season was Penns Valley, which endured a 6-13 campaign.
Can one team take home the state title this year? Will at least four teams reach the playoffs? How will these teams adjust to holes in the roster?
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Here’s a look at each team heading into 2017:
Bald Eagle Area
BEA coach Don Lucas refuses to call this a rebuilding year.
Sure, the Lady Eagles lost six seniors and five starters. And, sure, they’re coming off a season in which they were District 6 runners-up. But, with another solid pitching staff, Lucas isn’t ready to chalk this season up as one to simply develop the younger players.
“Our goal always is to win the league,” he said. “So it’s a lofty goal, but it’s one we think we’re capable of if we play well.”
Sophomore Zoey Surovec, who started 15 games last season, and has shown great control early this season. Moreta Dyke, who was injured part of last year, moved from closer to fellow starter, and Madison Ripka is also available for some time in the circle.
Those three are giving Lucas and the Lady Eagles an extra boost of confidence.
“I feel good about our bullpen; I feel good about our pitchers,” Lucas said. “That’s where our strength is.”
Bald Eagle Area currently stands at 2-2, after watching a 10-0 lead against Huntingdon dissolve into a 12-10 loss in extra innings. It was a difficult loss to stomach, Lucas said, but his team isn’t about to panic this early in the season — especially when it’s practiced outside just once so far.
One of the area’s top players in pitcher Tara Baney is back — and so are Bellefonte’s state championship expectations.
In two games so far this season, Baney has already struck out 28 batters. Against Clearfield, she struck out 16 of the 25 girls she faced. Against Penns Valley, her strikeout total numbered a dozen.
It’s hard to beat the Lady Red Raiders when few teams can score. They’ve surrendered just one run their first two games, both of which were wins.
“I’m biased; my daughter pitched at Bellefonte and holds most of the records — but Tara is in the same mold,” coach Fred Caldwell said. “Her work ethic is amazing; that’s what made her so good. But what makes her good on the field is she has a great fastball and has great command of her pitches.”
Baney has further improved her off-speed pitches during the offseason, so opposing teams will be forced to deal with one of the area’s best players who’s only gotten better. But she’s far from the only reason for excitement among the red and white.
Although Bellefonte is looking to replace five seniors from last year, talent isn’t an issue and the team’s hitting might’ve even taken a step forward. Caldwell has emphasized smacking line drives into play, and he’s seen that focus pay dividends already.
“We are more balanced than we have been in the past,” he said. “We’ve hit some good ones these first two games, our defense is very good, and our pitching is right where we want it to be — so we’re definitely more balanced.”
Some of the faces may have changed at Bellefonte, and the starters aren’t identical to last year. But the program that’s won 14 district championships since 2000 isn’t changing its goals.
“We expect to win the district title,” Caldwell said matter-of-factly. “And we expect to make a deep run into states. That’s always our goal, and I think it’s a very realistic goal.”
At 1-3, this isn’t the start that the Lady Rams envisioned in the preseason. But their record so far is also a bit misleading.
Penns Valley has already faced two powerhouses in Bellefonte and Philipsburg-Osceola — both losses were close — and fell in a 2-1 struggle against Bald Eagle Area.
“Offense is definitely something we need to improve on,” coach Tessa Deardorff said. “But our defense has been playing very well, and our pitchers have been doing very well.”
The Lady Rams fell to Bellefonte 3-0 and lost to P-O 7-1, but both teams were tied at 1 in the fourth. Even the Lady Mounties’ coach could sense their improvement over last season: “They have been playing teams tough,” Jim Gonder said. “They are much improved.”
Again, that may not be reflected in Penns Valley’s record at this point. But Deardorff remains optimistic, especially with 10 seniors on the roster.
“Against P-O, we put the ball in play,” she said. “It might not look like it on the stats, but I keep telling them as long as they keep putting it play, the ball’s going to fall. You can’t make anything happen if you don’t put it in play.”
The Lady Rams return three experienced pitchers in Emma Kubalak, Harley Hess and Abby Thom. That’s a big reason why Deardorff believes her team could improve by quite a bit over last season. In 2016, Penns Valley finished at 6-13. This year, the team is aiming to reach .500.
Philipsburg-Osceola coach Jim Gonder isn’t filling his players’ heads with talk about a district or state championship just yet — even if that is a distinct possibility for his talented team.
The Lady Mounties came up just short last season, falling to South Park in the state quarterfinals. But they believe a state championship should be the product of their mantra and not the goal itself.
“The girls’ motto this year is, ‘Better than yesterday,’” Gonder said. “And we hope that in the middle of May, when the playoffs start rolling around, that we’re really achieving that.”
P-O once again boasts solid defense and pitching. In its first two games, it’s allowed just a single run — and pitcher Kam Harris tossed a one-hitter in the opener. The main question, Gonder said, is just whether P-O can replace the power of the since-graduated duo of Chelsey Henry and Haylee Hayward.
Hayward’s value was demonstrated time and time again at the plate last season. In the first round of the PIAA playoffs, she tripled, hit a solo home run and smacked the game-winning double to give the Lady Mounties a 6-5 win. Now, Gonder is hoping his lineup can make up for the lost power by increasing its batting average across the board and finding RBIs beyond the extra-base hits.
“Sadie Granville worked hard and wants to swing the bat this year,” Gonder added, “so we’ll see what happens.”
Gonder has already settled on four pitchers — Harris, Maggie Peck and freshmen Kylie Adams and Roselyn Weaver — but the outfield remains in flux. That’s not necessarily a problem since there’s a lot of talent to choose from, as Gonder has decided to take a committee approach with 4-5 players until one or two more girls distance themselves.
Even State College coach Jim Schaper seemed pleasantly surprised with his team’s quick start.
The Lady Little Lions lost six seniors, and they’re also starting three freshmen this season — at pitcher, right field and shortstop. Because of State College’s inexperience, Schaper expected to see lack of discipline at the plate early on until the girls adjusted to the speed of varsity.
He saw some of those struggles in the opener. But Game 2 was another story — when State College hammered Mifflin County, 16-5.
“It was kind of unexpected,” Schaper said with a laugh. “We are young, so we may see a lot of that up-and-down this season. The goal is still to do the best we can in the Mid Penn Conference and win the district and head to states, but we’re realistic. We’re trying to go one game at a time.”
Against Mifflin County, two of those freshmen — McKenzie Shannon and Morgan Arnold —combined to go 6 of 9 with seven RBIs. Schaper knows he can’t expect that type of production every game, but he noted that the potential is clearly there.
One of the keys to making sure that only increases as the year progresses is to rely on leadership from his three seniors in Avery Cymbor, Kayla Hawbaker and Andrea Kling. Schaper has already preached patience to the trio, in terms of understanding they’ll have to help the underclassmen along.
“They’re going to be key because we realize that (underclassmen) talent is going to have to surface this year on varsity for us to be successful,” he said.
Bald Eagle Area
Head coach: Don Lucas
Assistant coaches: Darin Hazel, Jasa Mitchell, Melinda Mitchell
Last year: 17-5, lost in PIAA first round
Key losses: Sidney Shultz, Morgan Peters, Mikala Smith, Dallis Dillion, Morgan Nyman, Lex Reese
Returning letterwinners: Olivia Andrews, Moreta Dyke, Mackenzie McCloskey, Skyler Woodward, Brooke Woodward, Megan Kresovich, Madison Ripka, Zoey Surovec
Key newcomers: Kaleigh Kinley, Tobi Yarrison, Allison Hess, Laccee Barnhart, Morgan Lucas, Maralee Caldana, Caitylnn Close, Stephanie Bumbarger
Head coach: Fred Caldwell
Assistant coaches: John Wetzler, Travis Foster, Laura Cunningham, Heather Cassidy, Lauren Heibler, Jessica Fishburn
Last year: 17-7, Class 3A District 6 champions, lost in PIAA quarterfinals
Key losses: Rachael Bernier, Samantha Gates, Taylore Maurer, Jordan Rockey, Makenzie Witmer
Returning letterwinners: Jenna Ault, Tara Baney, Angela Capparelle, Emma DeHaas, Rianna Trexler, Alexis Wetzler
Key newcomers: Ashley Benner, McKenna Hendrix, Taylor Kerr, Carson Kustaborder, Stephanie Liliedahl, Lissi Przybys, Emily Pugh, Jaelyn Smith, Mallorie Smith
Head coach: Tessa Deardorff
Assistant coaches: Kasey Packer, Jeff Wiest, Greg Evans
Last year: 6-13
Key losses: None
Returning letterwinners: Mikenna Lyons, Alicia Houser, Emma Kubalak, Harley Hess, Abby Thom, Paige Kerstetter, Elizabeth Lingle-Brooks, Cassidy Stover, Makayla Dreibelbis, Dayna Brown, Caroline Collison
Key newcomers: Devan Stoner, Ryah Thompson, Ryleigh Cain, Lydia Collison
Head coach: Jim Gonder
Assistant coaches: Jerry Watson, Jim Thal, Chip Branthoover, Mike Ammerman, Brian Wood, Joe Shedlock
Last year: 22-3, Class 2A District 6 champions, lost in PIAA quarterfinal
Key losses: Chelsey Henry, Haylee Hayward
Returning letterwinners: Maggie Peck, Sadie Granville, Annie Kost, Kylie Thal, Hannah Thompson, Jayde Burge, Kam Harris, Madison Lucas, Kendra Carns, Rachel Simpson
Key newcomers: Allyson Fenton, Kaleigh Taylor, Kylie Adams, Roselyn Weaver, Kyleigh Kennedy, Adria Lewis, Katie Lingle
Head coach: Jim Schaper
Assistant coaches: Steve Shedlock, Karen Murphy, Shawn Lelko, Brian Myers, Rich Wolfe
Last year: 12-9, lost in Class 4A District 6 final
Key losses: Abby Allen, Jennie Ewton, Andrea Myers, Jenna Peterson, Alyssa Shedlock, Hannah Shields
Returning letterwinners: Avery Cymbor, Sarah Bowman, Kayla Hawbaker, Andrea Kling, Emily Lieb, Addie Wasikonis
Key newcomers: Morgan Arnold, Emma Wolfe