It was pretty much a given before the first in March this would not be the easiest of seasons for the State College softball team.
The Lady Little Lions lost too many players to graduation, and there were so many freshmen and sophomores on the roster.
“We knew the younger kids had talent,” coach Jim Schaper said. “It was just a matter of getting them ready for this level, this caliber of play.”
It took a while, but State College got it all to work.
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Despite having four freshmen and three sophomores in the starting lineup last Wednesday night, the Lady Little Lions beat Mifflin County 6-3 for the District 6 Class 6A championship. Despite an 8-12 record for the season, the team returns to the field at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Softball Park to meet Erie McDowell (13-5) in a PIAA subregional, with the winner heading to the state tournament.
“I’m pretty surprised,” senior catcher Avery Cymbor said of the team’s successful blending of so much youth into the lineup. “I know a lot of the younger girls have been playing together forever, but I didn’t know what it was going to be like mixing the younger girls with the very few older girls.”
Schaper acknowledged his team has had its ups and downs. But that might be an understatement.
State College opened with a 5-0, one-hit loss to Central Dauphin, then won its next two, including a 16-5 thumping of Mifflin County, which had won the last two district titles. After that came a skid — where the Lady Little Lions lost nine of 11.
But this season has been a work in progress, with a new lineup practically game to game. There were only two freshmen in the lineup early, as Schaper was slowly trying to ease the young ones into the varsity level. It was easier for some than others.
“I felt pretty comfortable early on,” said freshman shortstop Morgan Arnold, an early starter along with outfielder McKenzie Shannon. “It was an adjustment from middle school because you have seniors pitching to you and stuff, but I think I adjusted pretty well.”
Schaper said it helped having several of the younger girls on a travel team he also coaches, as they got in more than 100 games last summer — seeing talented hitters and older, harder throwers in the circle.
“They have a little bit of confidence in them,” Schaper said. “They’ve been successful in the levels they have played. And they are dynamite hitters.”
Arnold said some adjustments have been tough, like catching up to pitches low and away in the strike zone, but she spoke with plenty of confidence about the way it has come together. She has been playing since starting in T-ball at age 6, and a lot of the game feels like second nature.
Schaper also thinks the easy-going personality of the team helps.
“We’re real relaxed,” Schaper said. “We could go out, make three errors in a row, give up some runs, and we’ll come back in and hit the ball like crazy. Things don’t carry over.”
The coaches have also relied on the senior leaders to help in the transition. Third baseman Andrea Kling and first baseman Kayla Hawbaker join Cymbor in the starting lineup, and Saede Eifrig is the quiet senior in the group.
“We have to keep their nerves calm,” said Cymbor, who will be studying biology at Clemson this fall but not continuing her athletic career. “We have to remind them, ‘Hey, it’s just a game, it’s what you’ve been doing. Just rely on your skills.’”
After a couple substitutions in the district final last week, the lineup had freshmen taking all of the outfield spots along with Arnold at short and Ashley Blumenthal as the designated player. The team still rapped out 11 hits, four by the freshmen.
“I was a little nervous toward the beginning,” Arnold said of playing on the Penn State field for the district crown, “but it got a lot more natural as the game went on.”
That seems to be the story of the season for the Lady Little Lions: Getting past the early bumps, and still feeling pretty natural by the end.
“They’re loose; they handle everything,” Schaper said. “We’re at a point they’re pretty comfortable with what we’re doing; we’re comfortable with what they’re doing.”
At Nittany Lion Softball Park
District 6 Class A final: Glendale vs. Claysburg-Kimmel, noon
PIAA Class 6A subregional: State College vs. Erie McDowell, 2:30 p.m.
District 6 Class 2A final: Conemaugh Valley vs. Mount Union, 5 p.m.
District 6 Class 3A final: Philipsburg-Osceola vs. Ligonier Valley, 7:30 p.m.
At Bald Eagle Area HS
PIAA Class 6A subregional: State College vs. Erie McDowell, 4 p.m.