Elizabeth Forward softball coach Harry Rutherford wasn't quite sure what type of hand he had been dealt when he met with his team at the beginning of the 2012 softball season.
Experience was in short supply, and Elizabeth Paterra, his top pitcher, would have to miss her senior season with back problems.
"We had three seniors and only three returning starters," he said. "Then we lost our No. 1 pitcher [Paterra], who also was our No. 4 hitter," he said. "Losing her as a pitcher and also her bat was key for us. But this team really stepped up, and they accomplished a lot. I'm really proud of them. We finished 17-8, and that's just one game off the school record [for victories in a season]."
This year's Warriors team had two chances to record that 18th win, but they ran up against a very solid Montour team and fell in the WPIAL Class AAA softball final, 7-0, and the season came to end on Monday when Fort LeBoeuf scored a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to earn a 3-2 victory in a PIAA Class AAA first-round game in Erie.
The team that set the school record was a pretty good one. That was the 2007 squad that finished 18-5. Like this year's team, that one also fell short in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game to Belle Vernon Area by a 3-1 margin.
"I can't say enough about what we did as a team and what Portia McBride did as a pitcher," Rutherford said. McBride, a junior, didn't win any games in her sophomore year but finished this season with a 17-7 record.
"She's still learning how to pitch, but I'm very pleased with the effort she gave us this year," Rutherford said.
In the hours that followed after the first-round loss to Fort LeBoeuf, Rutherford sensed some new resolve for a team that returns seven of its nine starters in 2013.
"With seven starters returning, I have high expectations for the next two seasons as most of our players are sophomores," he said. "We only have to replace our first baseman and second baseman, so that doesn't make it very hard for me."
If the Warriors did sneak up on anyone this season, that won't be a luxury they will enjoy next year with all of that experience returning.
"We weren't looked upon as a real threat as we were the No. 9 seed going into the WPIAL tournament," he said. "But I believe we play in the toughest section in Triple-A with Belle Vernon, Thomas Jefferson and South Park. This was a section that had teams ranked in the top 10 all year long."
Rutherford believes his team has the potential to be discussed as a WPIAL Class AAA contender in 2013.
"We'll have seven starters back, and Portia was one of the top pitchers in the section, and she'll be a lot better next year after she plays some summer ball this year," he said. "She's going to learn a lot, and I expect her to step up next year."
At the end of the regular season, McBride had 141 strikeouts, which ranked her 10th among softball pitchers. She had five strikeouts in the loss to Montour in the WPIAL championship game and eight more on Monday against Fort LeBoeuf.
The Warriors had their chances against Montour and Kaitlyn Kutchman, the Spartans talented pitcher. Twice the Warriors had runners on second and third in the second and fourth innings.
In the fifth inning, they loaded the bases. Each time, though, Kutchman wiggled out of trouble, striking out hitters in the second and fifth innings and getting a batter to hit a comebacker in the fourth.
"We're going to work on that, and that's what you have to do with a young team," Rutherford said. "They need to know that sometimes you have to shorten up the bat and make contact. We have to put the bat on the ball, make them catch it and throw it and not give them an easy out.
"We've talked about that a lot, and a lot of our players will work on that when they play travel ball [this summer]."
First Published June 7, 2012 12:00 AM