Veteran Sto-Rox softball coach Bill Palermo celebrated his 64th birthday on Sunday by competing in a triathlon at Slippery Rock University.
Competing in the 55-and-older age group, Palermo finished third, improving his time from last May by seven minutes.
Now Palermo is hoping his softball team can show a major improvement from its performance last May.
Armed with a team he believed was the most talented in the state, Palermo watched as the Vikings dominated the WPIAL Class A during the regular season. On May 7, 2011 Sto-Rox shut out North Catholic, 8-0, to improve to 13-0 and secure the Section 3-A title.
The Vikings would not win another game.
They lost three consecutive non-section games against larger schools, West Allegheny, Chartiers Valley and Seneca Valley to close out the regular season. Still Sto-Rox was awarded the No. 2 seed in the WPIAL Class A playoffs.
Many still anticipated an almost-inevitable showdown with No. 1 Chartiers-Houston in the WPIAL championship game.
But the Vikings were stunned by No. 15 seed Fort Cherry, 9-8, in the first round of the playoffs.
"These kids saw that, they saw what happened last year," Palermo said. "Last year I thought we were the most talented team in the state. I thought we could have won the state title. We had so much going for us but we just didn't do the job. I keep bringing that up. We learned our lesson."
Palermo coached in his 700th game last Thursday -- a 2-1 victory against West Allegheny -- so when he says his team was a legitimate state title contender last year, it is more than just "coachspeak."
Sto-Rox once again found itself sitting at 13-0 again going into May. Getting that 14th win may have seemed like a mental hurdle, but the Vikings cleared that hurdle with ease, blasting Cornell, 19-0, to win the 14th game that eluded them last season.
In non-section play Sto-Rox avenged two losses from last season, knocking off Class AAA schools West Allegheny and Chartiers Valley.
The Vikings took a 16-0 record into a scheduled non-section game against unbeaten Seton-LaSalle on Wednesday.
"We had little goals set for us this year," Palermo said. "This year we beat West Allegheny -- we didn't do that last year -- and then went and played Chartiers Valley. We got over that hump, we didn't do that last year."
This Sto-Rox team might not have the individual talent of last year's group but this group truly is a team in every sense of the word.
"This is more like one of the old Sto-Rox teams of the past," Palermo said. "The teams we had the last couple of years were more talented than this one, but this one is playing better and looking like they are more talented."
Senior pitcher Natalya Smarra is the only player on the team who has experienced a playoff win as a starter. Smarra was a sophomore pitcher two years ago when Sto-Rox reached the WPIAL Class AA semifinals before it dropped to Class A last year. She was also a starting shortstop as a freshman on the 2009 team, which reached the WPIAL finals and PIAA quarterfinals.
Smarra can top off at 60 miles per hour on her pitches but this year she is focusing more on control and not worrying about throwing so hard.
"Her control and movement has improved so much it is amazing," Palermo said. "This year instead of throwing it 59 or 60 miles per hour, we concentrated on putting it right where we want it. Those 1 or 2 miles per hour extra mean nothing if you don't have the control."
Smarra works with pitching coach Carrie Palermo, Bill's wife and the girls' basketball coach at the school. Smarra had a 1.09 ERA going into this week and she was also leading the team in batting with a .522 average and six doubles and two home runs.
Sophomore catcher Mary Cersosimo is batting .511 with nine doubles and three home runs. Junior second baseman Josie Buckley has six doubles and two home runs and sophomore right fielder Aimee Miller has six doubles, two triples and a home run.
"These are just great kids with great parents," Palermo said. "I like going to practice every day. I am enjoying it, I feel like I am 29 again. I am having a real good time and it is not just about their success."