After 31 years with Penns Valley, Don Lucas starts anew at Bald Eagle Area, while one of his former players, Tessa Deardorff, is underway in her first year leading the Lady Rams.
Meanwhile, Jim Gonder remains a staple at Philipsburg-Osceola in his 34th season, and Fred Caldwell and Mike Harper look to take their programs up a level in their second and third seasons at Bellefonte and State College, respectively.
Based on the coaches’ storylines alone, the Centre County softball season looks to be an intriguing one.
And that’s prior to delving into those who will take the field.
Bald Eagle Area
After last season, Lucas retired from Penns Valley. He was done coaching.
Or so he thought.
“I saw the (BEA) job posted, and thought maybe I wasn’t done coaching,” Lucas said. “So I applied for it, and was fortunate enough to be hired. So far, it’s been a great experience. ... I’m looking forward to the year.”
Lucas made an indelible mark at Penns Valley. Guiding the program to a PIAA championship in 2002, Lucas was the Lady Rams’ staunch leader for the better part of three decades.
So now for the question he’s been asked a lot since accepting BEA’s offer: Will it be weird moving from one Centre County school to another?
“Coaching’s coaching. Where you hang your hat is what you make of it,” Lucas said. “I live pretty close to Bald Eagle Area school district. My parents are from Bald Eagle Area. So I really felt like I was going back home. ... It wasn’t as weird as it may have been.”
Integrating himself into a new program, though, takes time, and Lucas knows that. Since he accepted the job, he’s spent a lot of time getting to know his players and their personalities — a group that returns 10 letterwinners and posted a 17-5 record last season.
Lucas said the pitching staff is “a work in progress” and he’s not totally sure what his starting lineup will be yet, but the coach is confident in his Lady Eagles as Tuesday’s season opener approaches.
Their opponent in that first game? Penns Valley, of course.
Lucas said he’s not going to stress himself out thinking about the opponent.
“All those years at the high school, Penns Valley was great,” the coach said. “I have a lot of great memories, but looking forward to creating new memories at Bald Eagle Area.”
In contrast to Lucas, Deardorff, fresh out of college softball, is looking to make her own mark on the program.
A 2011 Penns Valley graduate, Deardorff was a key player in her time with the Lady Rams and went on to play collegiately at Division III Lebanon Valley College, where she was an all-conference first-teamer as a senior.
This is her first time ever coaching, and Deardorff is still learning, but she’s confident in her team and the coaches that surround her.
“Everything is very new, but I have assistant coaches behind me with a lot of great experience, and they’ve been helpful,” Deardorff said. “They’ve been awesome, bearing with me as I learn my style of coaching and how everything works. ... It’s been a lot of fun.”
Deardorff has 10 returning letterwinners to work with, nine juniors and one sophomore.
Three of those juniors — Emma Kubalak, Harley Hess and Abby Thom — will make up Penns Valley’s pitching rotation. It’s a trio on which Deardorff feels she can rely.
“They have that experience, and they’re all different, so that’ll add some variety for us,” the coach noted.
As for immersing herself in the team, Deardorff thinks the players can easily relate with her as a former Lady Ram with collegiate experience.
“I know what they’re looking for at the college level ... I try to bring that sort of element down to high school,” Deardorff said. “If they want to continue playing, getting them ready for that next step is my goal.”
And the coach believes there are a handful of players capable of reaching that goal.
Coming off a 6-13 record in 2015, that should bode well in Penns Valley’s push to improve on that mark.
“We have high expectation for this group,” Deardorff said. “We believe they can be a really strong team.”
Powered by a 13-game winning streak, the 2015 Mounties were nearly unbeatable last year, finishing off the campaign with a 20-3 overall record and a 14-0 Mountain League mark.
But P-O will need to replace three offensive catalysts.
The Mounties lost Megan Bainey, Abby Showers and Kenzie Burge — the top three in the batting order — to graduation, and Gonder is hoping a trio of sophomores can help fill the void.
Jayde Burge, Hannah Thompson and Kylie Thal started as freshmen last year, and their coach has challenged them to do better this go around.
“If they can increase their batting averages by 60 points apiece — they hit .260 last year — I said let’s get to .320 this year,” Gonder said. “And that’s a realistic goal for those guys.”
He’s not sure where those three will fall in the order, but Gonder knows his No. 3 hitter: senior third baseman Haylee Hayward.
“Haylee Hayward is a lynchpin for us,” Gonder noted, saying the senior has a good approach at the plate and is a true gap-to-gap hitter. “We expect a big season from her.”
In the circle, Gonder trusts junior Maggie Peck to lead the rotation, with freshman Kam Harris serving as the team’s No. 2.
Gonder said having Peck in place will help Harris get comfortable with her role, and he’s pleased having both as options.
“They throw a lot of strikes, and they can mix their pitches up,” Gonder said, “so I’m very happy with the way they’ve progressed so far.”
Losing two of three starting pitchers from last year, Harper and the Lady Little Lions will lean heavily on senior hurler Hannah Shields — and the coach is hoping that consistency on the hill will set up the rest of the squad.
Shields, signed to pitch at Delaware State, appeared in 16 games last year, posting a 5-4 record with a team-high three saves.
“She’s going to shoulder most of the load,” Harper said. “You know you’re going to get good innings out of her. You know she’s going to keep the game close for you.”
That should allow the Lady Little Lions to do what they want offensively.
In his third year at the helm, Harper said he wants State College to be more aggressive at the plate, whether that’s with more hit-and-runs or situational hitting in general.
And the coach thinks Shields plays a major role in that happening.
“It allows you to be a little more aggressive offensively, because you’re not giving much away defensively with her on the mound,” Harper said.
Outside of the pitching staff, State College returns a lot of talent, including starters at catcher (Avery Cymbor), second base (Alyssa Shedlock), shortstop (Abby Allen) and third base (Andrea Kling). Shedlock, in particular, will be crucial for the Lady Little Lions. The senior hit .500 and was first-team all-state last season.
With so many returning letterwinners, on the bump and in the batting order, Harper hopes his program will pass last year’s 13-9 record and District 6 semifinal defeat.
“We’re trying to take that next step,” Harper said. “I want to be the kind of team that’s challenging for the Mid Penn and in the District 6 championships. We’re close.”
Dealing with four key losses from last year’s team, Caldwell doesn’t have a firm batting order set just yet, but he knows a handful of players that’ll have extended roles.
“We don’t have a lot of depth,” Caldwell said of the Lady Red Raiders, “but I think we can put a very, very good starting group on the field, and compete with any team we’re going to face.”
Caldwell said Alexis Wetzler is a strong possibility to lead off for the Lady Red Raiders, while some combination of Tara Baney, Rianna Trexler and Taylore Maurer will likely be in the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 spots.
“We’re really solid through the middle of the order,” the coach said.
Caldwell was especially excited about Trexler’s prospects of making an early impact. In her first year on varsity, Trexler is expected to play third base and be a big hitter in the heart of the order.
“I think she’ll be a big addition for us,” Caldwell said.
Bellefonte finished 11-9 last season, and with Baney, a senior, and Rachael Bernier, a junior, anchoring the pitching staff, the Lady Red Raiders are looking for an improved mark in 2016.
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