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Hempfield has set goals to win championships as Westmoreland County teams start the softball season

Hempfield secured its eighth WPIAL softball championship last season.

Hempfield won its eighth WPIAL softball championship last season.

The Spartans are not avoiding the pressure that comes with aiming to win a ninth.

The season opens Friday, and the team is focused on winning the WPIAL and PIAA championships through detailed preparation under coach Bob Kalp's guidance.

Hempfield is well-prepared, from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box and all around the field.

The team's standard of excellence remains high, if not higher.

“With four D-1 players and potentially three or four more sophomores signing this fall, how can that not be the expectation?” said Hempfield's third-year coach Tina Madison.

Hempfield had a 21-4 record and finished as runner-up in the state 6A division to undefeated North Penn (28-0).

Junior pitcher Riley Miller, who was named TribLive Westmoreland player of the year, returns with impressive stats of a 19-4 record, 1.25 ERA and 175 strikeouts.

Miller has already committed to Kent State. Other Division I commits from Hempfield include senior right fielder Maggie Howard (Georgetown), senior center fielder Peyton Heisler (Penn) and junior shortstop Allie Cervola (Ohio).

Lauren Howard set a program record with 36 runs scored and batted .443.

Other key players returning include senior second baseman Sarah Podkul, sophomore left fielder Clair Mitchell, sophomore third baseman Lauren Howard, senior first baseman Emily Griffith, sophomore catcher Ella Berkebile and senior designated player Hannah Uhrinek.

With many experienced starters returning, there are times when Madison can relax and watch.

“The players are leading this team, which is exactly what coaches want,” Madison said. “I have a group of high-level ballplayers who know the game and know how to lead. I am just the co-pilot.”

Seneca Valley will try to challenge Hempfield for another title. The Spartans have won eight titles, tied with Chartiers-Houston for the second-most in WPIAL history.

Ace pitcher Lexie Hames, a Clemson commit and one of the top players in the country, is back to lead Seneca Valley.

Hempfield will focus on the present and not on potential matchups with Seneca Valley down the line.

“The girls are focused on a repeat,” Madison said. “They are highly competitive leaders and they want to win.”

Hempfield’s first two games are against the top two teams in 5A, No. 1 Shaler and No. 2 Armstrong.

Around the county

Belle Vernon (4A) also won a WPIAL title last season, their fifth, but veteran coach Tom Rodriguez is worried more about what he needs to replace rather than what is coming back.

Rodriguez, a coach who enjoys keeping and analyzing statistics, stated that the players lost to graduation or other reasons accounted for 61% of the team’s home runs, 47% of the runs, and 46% of the hits and RBIs.

The team suffered a significant loss with senior slugger Ava Zubovic, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. She is committed to Mercyhurst.

With all of that being said, can the Leopards repeat?

“It’s difficult to predict right now,” Rodriguez stated. “Losing two Division I players and a Division II player is a significant loss.

“Certainly, last year after Elizabeth Forward defeated us at the end of the season, and we only had one hit, I became very unsure. But we continued to work hard and things turned out well. So you never know. We are going to do our best.”

Gracie Sokol ( 6 HR, 23 RBIs) and Mia Zubovic (27 RBIs), who are juniors, are returning for the Leopards.

Norwin was a 6A semifinalist that lost to Hempfield. The Lady Knights have one of the top players in the WPIAL at shortstop in senior Bailey Snowberger, a Holy Cross commit who batted .519 with five homers and 39 runs scored. Snowberger and senior third baseman Josey Michalski were all-state selections.

Franklin Regional (5A) might be one of the top offensive teams in the county again, and could make a push in the playoffs if pitching and defense match the offensive performance.

A quarterfinalist, Franklin Regional features junior Toryn Fulton, a power-hitting infielder who has committed to South Florida. Fulton hit .552 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs.

Junior catcher Ciara Camacho is also a consistent part of the lineup.

The Panthers hit 32 homers and are expected to maintain strong offensive capabilities.

Youth will be a concern since the team only has one senior returning, but players like sophomore Adrianna Martz played frequently.

“I hope that the young girls will be an exciting sight to watch play and learn the game,” coach Jim Armstrong said. “We are in a highly competitive section with Armstrong and Latrobe, who also lost many players. Penn-Trafford is expected to have a strong comeback. We are looking forward to seeing how we match up with all of them.”

• After a six-win season, Penn-Trafford (5A) brings back eight starters, including seniors Mack Keenan and Erin Drotos and juniors Kylie Anthony and Cam Ponko.

“We’re relying on senior leadership to keep the team accountable and more focused,” coach Denny Little said. “I also believe our hitting will be a strength this year as we worked very hard in the offseason.”

Little believes the Warriors were starting to peak late in the season and can build upon that momentum.

• Another 5A team, Latrobe, finished as the Section 2 runner-up and advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals. Back are junior pitcher Kayla Williams, a Slippery Rock commit, and senior Corrine Wright, who will play at Gannon.

• The WPIAL 3A runner-up and a state qualifier, Southmoreland will rely on experience after losing only one senior.

Junior all-state shortstop Amarah McCutcheon (.542, 10 HR, 29 RBI) is one of the toughest outs in the district. She is a Cal (Pa.) commit.

A talented battery also comes back in senior pitcher Maddie Brown and junior catcher Makayla Etling. Junior outfielder Riley Puckey also comes back.

• With eight key players returning, Mt. Pleasant (3A) shows some promise. Senior catcher Addy Reese and junior pitcher GiGi Stanek will play key roles.

“We should be able to defend and pitch above average,” Vikings coach Chris Brunson said. “Hitting will be our variable as is with most teams.

“Our section is loaded with talent, especially in the circle. It will be a dogfight to make the playoffs for all the teams.”

The Vikings won both the WPIAL and PIAA championships in 2021.

• Brunson said Yough the Section 3-3A team is favored and could win the title. Cougars coach Art “Dutch” Harvey mentioned that his team has improved in every aspect of the game and is excited to see what Yough can achieve.

The Cougars were defeated by Southmoreland in a memorable quarterfinals match at Norwin last year. Southmoreland emerged victorious with a score of 15-14.

Yough has eight returning starters, including junior shortstop Adoria Waldier, who is an all-state player and also pitches.

Waldier hit nine home runs.

Other key players include senior Makayla Spoonhoward and junior Abby Zuraw.

Several freshmen could have a significant impact. They were part of a middle school team, according to Harvey, that did not suffer any losses over two years.

It is not unusual for the program to play freshmen.

“We will see how starting freshmen in every game for the past two years will benefit us this year in terms of experience and other aspects,” Harvey said. “Defense should be much stronger, the offense will be much improved, and pitching appears to be the strongest it has been since 2021.”

• Gionnah Ruffner of Greensburg Salem (4A) has committed to Seton Hall and could once again be one of the top hitters in the area. Additionally, she might be one of the top catchers. The senior, who batted .534 with nine home runs and 25 RBIs, is transitioning from center field to behind the plate.

Sophomore pitcher Alle Scarpa is also returning for the Golden Lions.

Jeannette (A) welcomes back sophomore Grace Stein, a skilled pitcher who had a 12-5 record with a 1.50 ERA and 136 strikeouts, and pitched five no-hitters as a freshman. The Jayhawks lost six seniors but have five starters returning. Five new players have never competed in the game before.

Greensburg Central Catholic (2A), a semifinalist team last year, has a new coach in Chelsey Frock, who was recently hired. Frock, the vice president of the Mount Pleasant Independent Athletic Association and an alumna of Mt. Pleasant, played softball and volleyball at Carlow and Westmoreland County Community College.

GCC has six returning starters, including Grace Kindel, Macee Magill, and Makenzee Kinney.

• Senior Cheyenne Piper is back in the circle for Ligonier Valley (2A). She struck out 194 batters in 113.1 innings and only gave up eight walks.

Derry (3A) has junior home run hitter Sophia Doherty returning.

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