One half of the way through the section schedule and there is an early contender for WPIAL surprise of the season, the McKeesport softball team.
The Tigers have swept the competition in Class AAAA Section 2, besting all six section foes. As difficult as it was to knock off teams such as Gateway and Plum during the first go-round in section play, McKeesport knows it will be even tougher when they begin the second half of section play today against Oakland Catholic.
"Everybody is going to try and come out and play us harder than they did," McKeesport coach Melissa Conrad said. "Being on top, we are going to be on everyone's radar. We need to keep doing what we are doing and not overlook anyone."
What the Tigers have been doing is scoring runs ... and a lot of them.
In a spring training trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to participate in the Ripken Experience, McKeesport scored 24 runs over three games while sweeping the competition.
Coming north and returning to WPIAL action the McKeesport bats stayed hot as they blasted Oakland Catholic and Penn Hills, 11-0 and 15-0, respectively. The Tigers also posted section wins against Woodland Hills, 8-1, Allderdice, 11-1, Gateway, 6-5, and Plum, 5-1.
McKeesport (9-0, 6-0) has built an early cushion in the section standings ahead of Plum (6-2, 5-1), Woodland Hills (4-3, 4-3) and Gateway (4-4, 4-3).
With only one senior in the starting lineup and with two of its top players being freshmen, a fast start was the ideal situation for McKeesport.
"A lot of girls got to know each other and become familiar with each other [on the trip to Myrtle Beach]," Conrad said. "We did get to play while other teams were back home stuck [working out] in the gym [due to inclement weather]."
This is the second year Conrad is at the school after taking over the program last season. She guided the Tigers to a 10-9 record last trip and a WPIAL postseason berth.
"Last year helped get the girls to know how I run things," Conrad said. "The first year is always the toughest year to get acquainted and know how things are -- it is definitely easier the second year."
McKeesport finished 8-4 in the section last season, good for third place. With defending section champion Franklin Regional moving to Section 1, the section title was up for grabs.
"We lost to Franklin twice last season, so knowing that, we may have had a better chance at the section title this year but with the team we have this year, even if Franklin was in our section, we would have a chance," Conrad said.
The Tigers have been led by senior catcher Kasey Dansak, junior pitcher Jess Beitler, junior second baseman Courtney Patterson, freshman shortstop Vanessa Falce and freshman right fielder Dom Clark.
Through seven games Falce was batting .524, Beitler was batting .522 from the cleanup spot, Patterson was batting .330 and Dansak was batting .315.
Falce hit a two-run home run that proved to be the difference in a one-run win against Gateway and Beitler hit a grand slam in a 5-1 win at Plum.
The win against Plum has been the signature moment of the young season for McKeesport. The Mustangs swept the regular-season series last season.
Through nine starts, Beitler is 9-0 with 66 strikeouts. Through nine games at catcher nobody has successfully stolen a base off Dansak and she has thrown out three runners.
"Our pitching has gotten a lot better and our hitting is definitely better than it was last year," Conrad said. "With a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing, having Kasey Dansak behind the plate is really important. She has really stepped it up and taken on a leadership role."
Dansak moved from shortstop to catcher this season.
"She really loves catching but last year we needed her at shortstop," Conrad said. "Kasey and Jess work great together. Kasey is a great leader on and off the field. Even at practice, she keeps things moving along."