Over the past few years the Mars Area softball team has taken three trips to Orlando, Fla., to get a head start on playing outdoors while waiting for the weather to break locally.
The past three trips have all ended with the same results, an 0-4 record. But Planets coach Michele Goodworth is not about to stop taking her teams south because while the trips have not been producing wins, they have produced a more Mars team ready to play upon its return home.
"[The Florida trip] is a great opportunity and a good experience," Goodworth said. "We were really just trying to figure out where everyone fit in. While we were down there, we were able to put players in their positions and figure out individual roles on the team."
The Planets certainly looked like a prepared team upon returning home this season. After losing four games in Florida, Mars (5-5, 5-1) won its first four section games to take the lead in Class AAA Section 5 ahead of Highlands (4-2, 4-2), Kittanning (3-3, 3-2) and Hampton (2-3, 2-3).
Four of the five section wins have been by one run. Mars won at Indiana, 7-6, and at Kittanning, 8-1, and won home section games against Highlands, 4-3, Hampton, 8-7, and Indiana, 2-1.
"Each game has been different," Goodworth said.
Against Highlands, Mars had to rally from a one-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh inning. Sophomore first baseman Suzanne Papik hit a two-run double in the bottom of the seventh to cap the rally.
Against Hampton, Mars had to overcome six errors, against Indiana, Mars overcame 34-degree weather in their first game back from Florida.
The Planets are doing this all with three freshmen starters. Despite the overall young makeup of the team, Goodworth had high hopes for this season based on the number of travel ballplayers she had.
In years past Mars would sometimes only have three travel players. This year she only has three players who do not play travel ball.
"That is definitely a first for me," Goodworth said. "That is the difference this season, the chemistry and experience our players bring, that has been a huge factor this season. With most of my starters playing travel ball we were looking forward to a real competitive season. The losses down in Florida didn't make me think any differently of this team or worry me at all."
Goodworth is a 1992 graduate of Mars Area High School. There was no softball team at the high school when she was a freshman and she played on the first Mars softball team in 1990.
Last season Mars went 12-7, won the section title outright and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals.
Senior pitcher Taylor Rotz is a returning starter from that team. She was 4-3 through her first seven starts with 56 strikeouts. She bats cleanup and leads the team with nine RBIs.
"She has just improved so much this year," Goodworth said. "She has a lot of confidence and that is huge when you are on the mound. She does have a mix of pitches which is good."
The freshmen starters are third baseman Mallory Eperesi, outfielder Blake Kitt and catcher Niki Schlegel. Eperesi and Kitt bat first and second while Schlegel bats seventh.
"The top of the lineup -- our first and second batters are kind of our spark," Goodworth said.
Papik and Rotz bat third and fourth and junior shortstop Erin Hershman and junior center fielder Kasey Jones bat fifth and sixth. Papik has six RBIs, Hershman has five and Jones has four. Hershman and Papik have each hit two home runs.
"Our top six batters have the top batting averages," Goodworth said.
The bottom of the lineup has been solid as well. Junior right fielder Sarah Dailey, junior designated hitter Jeanna Sybert, junior outfielder Shelby Huber, sophomore second baseman Kieran Salada and junior outfielder Kassandra Johnson have all rotated in the lineup this season.