After back-to-back PIAA runner-up finishes in 2010 and '11, Ambridge Area's softball team was eliminated in the district quarterfinals last season and missed qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in three years.
The Bridgers returned eight starters from the 2012 squad who were looking to get back to the state playoffs.
The Bridgers (18-5) returned to the WPIAL title game this season, losing to Greensburg Salem, and were the last team standing from the district in the PIAA Class AAA tournament, losing in the semifinals Tuesday to Fort LeBeouf, 4-1.
"Anytime you lose, it's hard to take, especially when you thought you were going to go further," Ambridge coach Jim Huwar said. "Our girls worked hard throughout the summer and winter in conditioning and I think that helped us out this season."
It was the furthest Ambridge advanced in the state tournament since it won the championship in 2005. Huwar said the team's experience had a lot to do with its success.
"One of the things is that when you have that many girls who have won that many games, they don't get down," Huwar said. "They keep fighting back."
The Bridgers' success started in the pitching circle with a pair on talented hurlers.
Senior Hannah Smith was the team's ace last season and has pitched well again this season despite battling through a sore shoulder. Smith was able to get rest, though, because the Bridgers also had Kelly Haslett, who led the team in wins.
"Having two pitchers is very helpful," Huwar said. "You don't have to rely on just one pitcher. We can have Haslett start and finish with Smitty or we can start Smitty and bring in Haslett. They complement each other well."
Both are talented hitters, too. Haslett hit better than .400 as a freshman and bats in the middle of the team's order this year. Smith, the team's cleanup hitter, hit eight home runs.
"We made some switches to [Smith's] hitting over the winter," said Huwar. "With some kids, you don't just want them to put the bat to the ball. With her power, we wanted her to hit the ball harder."
Hitting behind Smith was another talented senior in catcher Jaymee Humbert. Humbert, who had the team's lone RBI in Tuesday's semifinal loss, and Smith play together on the Pittsburgh Power traveling team and will continue to play together next season at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
The 2014 Bridgers will miss Smith and Humbert, as well as Lexi Hilzendeger, who had three RBIs in the team's PIAA first-round win against Hollidaysburg. But even though Ambridge had eight returning starters this season, they only had five seniors and no juniors on the roster.
So the team shouldn't experience much of a dropoff in the next few years.
"Our junior high did really well this season and we have some big groups in seventh and eighth grade," Huwar said. "You hope to get two or three kids out of every class who can step in as ninth-graders and play.
"But we also have a lot of ninth- and 10th-graders this season who didn't play as much because of the other upperclassmen but they've worked hard and have the skills to play well and know what is expected of them."