Bob Kovalcin has been coaching long enough to know that there is no substitute for dominant starting pitching in the world of fast-pitch softball.
Experience also has taught him that long-term success demands more than that.Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Latrobe High School players celebrate after defeating Seneca Valley in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game last Thursday. Latrobe won, 5-1.
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That's why Kovalcin, head coach at Greater Latrobe High School, spreads the credit around when discussing what it took for his team to claim the WPIAL Class AAAA championship this season, the first such title for the school.
Although junior Alexa Bryson provided the dominant pitching that led the team to a 5-1 victory against Seneca Valley in last Thursday's championship game, Kovalcin said everyone from assistant coaches to each Wildcats player also played key roles in the team's success entering the state playoffs this week.
The Wildcats (19-3) knocked off DuBois, 2-0, in the opening round of PIAA play Monday and will meet Seneca Valley in a second-round rematch today. Game time is 2 p.m. at Fairhaven Park, Kennedy.
"I think the key to the whole season was the hard work we put in all year," he said. "We put in a lot of time both on and off the field working to become better and that really showed for us with what we were able to accomplish on the field."
Senior leadership, Kovalcin said, was a major contributor to what happened on and off the field. He cited the efforts of senior first baseman Natalie Ferrari and right fielder Kristin Paul as one example.
"They are good leaders for us both on and off the field," Kovalcin said. "They really helped with the younger players. Kristin had four or five big hits for us and Natalie was our big hitter and gave us a lot of power. Those were the things they did on the field.
"But the other thing they did was keep the team focused and keep everyone working hard. They really raised our level of focus and kept the team together."
Outside Bryson's pitching, which was outstanding all year with 232 strikeouts entering the PIAA playoffs, Latrobe fields a team of considerable talent and one that had strengths in several areas. Kovalcin said the defense behind Bryson was outstanding and the offense was both timely and powerful.
"We have a little bit of everything," he said. "Our pitching with Lex has been outstanding, but we also have had good defense. The other thing is that we have been able to persevere. If we make an error or something goes wrong, we don't seem to get down on ourselves.
"Offensively, we've been able to put the ball in play better than we have in the past. When we have had opportunities offensively, we have been able to come through. You've got to be able to put the ball in play and make the other team make plays defensively and we have been able to do that all year. We've been able to get the job done when we have had a chance and that has been really important to us."
Some of the credit for that goes to the coaching staff, Kovalcin said. He said the contributions of varsity assistant Cindy Mitchell, pitching coach Jana Hudson and junior varsity coach Rick Kozusko have been invaluable. Each assistant has a specific area for which he or she is responsible, Kovalcin said, and has worked to make each area a team strength.
"Cindy Mitchell really is our rules interpreter and our first base coach," he said. "The other thing I would say is that she is our morale coach. She knows girls better than I do. I yell at them and then she comforts them. She builds them back up and makes them realize how good they really are."
Kovalcin said he has worked for four seasons to lure Hudson from Hempfield over to Latrobe. The work finally paid off this season with the tutelage Hudson provided to Bryson.
"We really study the teams we are going to play and how they hit," Kovalcin said. "Jana calls all of our pitches. She's really helped Lex with her understanding of the game and how we want to attack certain hitters in certain situations. She's brought more of a mental approach to the game for Lex and that has been a big reason why [Bryson] has been able to be so successful."
Kozusko has served as the team's conditioning coach and, as Kovalcin put it, "our fundamentals coach."
"He's really made sure we have stressed the fundamentals and worked with the girls really hard on that," Kovalcin said. "Our girls really know how to play the game and he's a big reason for that."
It is the players, of course, who have executed those lessons and done it at a championship level. Bryson and the senior leaders have played huge roles, but younger players such as center fielder Kristen Schmucker, sophomore second baseman Mollie Kovalcin and shortstop Megan Kozusko, a freshman, have been outstanding as well.
"One of the things that has helped us the most is the coming of age of our first-year starters," Kovalcin said. "We knew at the start of the year we had Lex and several other starters back, but we had a number of new starters coming in and we needed them to play well.
"You're never really sure how new starters are going to do, but in our case this year, they've helped us come together as a team.
"They have done a good job of putting the ball in play and making things happen for us."
So much so that Latrobe should be a force next year and should make a bid to win its second consecutive WPIAL title. The Wildcats have 11 juniors on this year's team and Kovalcin is looking for big things from them next season.
"That's a big number of seniors, so this experience should really help us next year," he said.