The six seniors on the Hempfield Area softball team are a close-knit bunch and the majority of them line up close on the diamond as well.
First baseman Kelly Mahoney, second baseman Callie Madden, shortstop Justyne Falbo and third baseman Maddy Knizner surround pitcher Hope Pehrson in the infield. Outfielder Taylor Spangler, another senior, starts as well.
"It is definitely a benefit when you have seniors," coach Bob Kalp said.
The six seniors were a big part of the success Hempfield has had over the past four seasons and this year specifically. The Spartans finished the regular season 15-5 and received the No. 4 seed in the WPIAL Class AAAA playoff field where they knocked out Gateway, 14-0, in the first round and Shaler Area, 4-1, in the quarterfinals.
Hempfield fell to Canon-McMillan, 5-0, in the WPIAL semifinals and was scheduled to play Peters Township in a third-place consolation game on Wednesday. The winner of that game qualifies for the PIAA tournament.
Most of the seniors have played together since the local West Point Little League program that began with T-ball.
"I really love being a senior with this team," Pehrson said. "We are all pretty close and we all get along.
"It is kind of sad this is my last time playing with them."
Like so many Hempfield teams in the past, this year's group hung its hat on defense. The Spartans maintained a .961 fielding percentage, a statistic even more impressive considering that Pehrson is more of a ground-ball pitcher than strikeout pitcher.
"We are really sound in our infield," Kalp said. "Defensively, we made all the plays. We work real hard on our defense. Our program over the years has always been sound defensively. We have good defense, good pitching and hope to get enough hitting to win some games."
Pehrson, a Seton Hill University recruit, is a four-year starter as a right-handed pitcher. She missed the second half of last season with shoulder and elbow problems on her throwing arm. She enjoyed a bounce-back senior campaign. She went 15-5 with a 1.66 ERA. Pehrson was quick to credit her defense.
"I think they are awesome," Pehrson said. "If a ball is hit to the infield, I don't bother worrying. I know it is going to be caught. They make double plays all the time, they are the best infield I have had in my four years."
Madden set a single-season and career record for assists this year. Her 74 assists this season and 176 career assists are best in program history. She maintained a .961 fielding percentage this year. Madden, a four-year starter, played third base as a freshman and sophomore before making the move to second base.
Falbo, Madden's middle infield counterpart at shortstop, had 59 assists, which ranks in the top five all time for single season at Hempfield. Overall, the team had 234 assists this year.
"The big stat is our .961 fielding average," Kalp said. "We play very well defensively. If Hope keeps the ball down, we have a good chance of getting the out."
Knizner started at catcher for the first 15 games this season but after incurring hip and knee problems, she was moved to third base. Kalp shuffled the lineup, moving junior center fielder Alaina Montgomery to catcher and sophomore Kelsie Hendrick to the outfield.
While Hempfield had one of the strongest defenses in the WPIAL, it also had an offense to compete with anyone. Madden (.302), Mahoney (.319), Pehrson (.321), Spangler (.333) and Falbo (.362) all hit effectively.
Falno had 15 RBIs, Knizner had 12 and Pehrson and Madden each had 10. The senior bats were especially critical in the playoff run as the Spartans were without their leading hitter, junior Kasey Kolick who suffered a concussion in a practice before their first playoff game. Kolick had four home runs and 23 RBIs this season.
Even with the loss of six senior starters, Hempfield should still be strong next season. The Hempfield junior varsity team finished 18-1 this season.
"We won't be as veteran next season," Kalp said. "But it won't be total devastation. Our junior varsity team only lost one game and we have some kids coming in who will be freshmen who may get a chance to play varsity."