Change is afoot in district high school softball this season.
There will be no City League champion, as the former City League schools will now compete in the WPIAL, increasing the number of WPIAL teams to 128 this year. There will be a new WPIAL Class A champion, as Chartiers-Houston moves up to Class AA. There will be a new PIAA Class AA champion, as Neshannock moves down to Class A.
But as more things change, the more they stay the same. Teams that won either WPIAL or PIAA gold last season such as Canon-McMillan, Deer Lakes and Neshannock are all ranked No. 1 in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings in their respective classes.
A year after winning the first WPIAL softball title in program history, Canon-McMillan finds itself as the top-ranked team in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings.
The Big Macs return seven starters from the WPIAL championship team last year including senior pitcher Alayna Astuto (16-5, 152 strikeouts). Canon-McMillan's run to a WPIAL title was fueled by a lethal lineup that returns some of the top power hitters in the WPIAL in junior catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko (.482, 29 RBIs), junior third baseman Olivia Lorusso (7 HRs, 24 RBIs) and sophomore right fielder Abby McCartney (.596).
"We still have strong, confident hitters," 10th-year coach Michele Moeller said.
Canon-McMillan defeated Hempfield in the WPIAL final last season. The Spartans also appear to be one of the top teams in the area. They return seven starters from a team that shared the Section 1 title with Norwin last season.
Hempfield, the No. 2-ranked team in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings, should be one of the more experienced teams with five senior returning starters including pitcher Hope Pehrson (8-2), shortstop Justyne Falbo (.400, 14 RBIs), second baseman Callie Madden (14 runs) and catcher Madi Knizner (.391, 14 RBIs).
In addition to those starters, coach Bob Kalp welcomes back junior outfielder Kasey Kolick who missed her sophomore year with a season-ending torn labrum.
"We'll get better and the return of a healthy Kolick will make our lineup even stronger," Kalp said.
The Spartans will be challenged in the section by No. 4 Norwin and No. 5 Latrobe.
Shaler has won the Section 3 title the past four seasons but No. 3 North Allegheny appears to be the section favorite this year. The Tigers have five starters back, including junior pitcher Sami Beining (11-3, 2.36 ERA). Coach Rick Meister calls Sami's younger sister, freshman pitcher Madi Beining, a big addition.
The Class AAA field is wide open this season with defending champion Montour graduating a majority of its starting lineup. Top-ranked Greensburg Salem graduated two all-state players but it also welcomes back two all-state players in senior pitcher Jayne Oberdorf, a Marist College recruit, and senior catcher Taylor Mehan (.590, 5 HRs).
The Golden Lions reached the WPIAL semifinals last season.
Section 3 could be the most competitive in the WPIAL with No. 2 Elizabeth Forward, No. 4 Belle Vernon and No. 5 South Park all vying for the title. Elizabeth Forward has six starters back, including senior pitcher Portia McBride (17-7, 0.99 ERA, 166 strikeouts).
Ambridge could be a darkhorse in Class AAA with eight of its nine starters back from last season, including senior pitcher Hannah Smith (17-3, 100 strikeouts) and senior corner infielder Lexi Hilzendeger (.382).
Deer Lakes is ranked No. 1 in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings and is the defending WPIAL Class AA champion, but the Lancers should be challenged by No. 3 Chartiers-Houston, the two-time defending WPIAL Class A champion.
Senior catcher Hannah Blinn (.530) is one of seven returning starters for Deer Lakes. Sophomore pitcher Tiffany Edwards can pitch (8-0, 1.20 ERA) and hit (.388, 4 HRs).
"We can't be complacent," Deer Lakes coach Craig Taliani said. "We'll be everyone's target."
In its first year playing outside of the WPIAL's smallest classification, Chartiers-Houston will rely on senior pitcher Kayla Briggs (25-2, 213 strikeouts). Briggs was an all-state selection last season for the Buccaneers.
"We have good leadership on this team," Chartiers-Houston coach Tricia Alderson said. "It will be more challenging moving up to Class AA."
Riverside, a WPIAL semifinalist a year ago, is ranked No. 3 and it boasts senior pitcher Kirsten Wilson (0.43 ERA, 254 strikeouts). Wilson led the WPIAL in strikeouts last season but coach Pam McCarty, now in her 16th year at the school, calls Wilson the best hitter ever at Riverside. She batted .579 last season.
Chartiers-Houston and Vincentian have combined to win the previous eight WPIAL Class A titles. The title may be up for grabs this season with Chartiers-Houston in Class AA and Vincentian having to replace six seniors, including pitcher Bridget Melvin.
That could leave the door open for Neshannock, a team that has never won a WPIAL title but did win the PIAA Class AA title last season. Neshannock is the top-ranked team in the Post-Gazette's preseason rankings, not just because of the move down from Class AA but mostly because of the return of eight starters. The Lancers' only loss last season was to Deer Lakes in the WPIAL Class AA final.
"We are not going to change our game," coach Tracy Kimmel said. "Teams have to try to catch up to us."
No. 2 Carmichaels and No. 3 Sto-Rox welcome back seven starters each. The Mighty Mikes reached the WPIAL final last season but they must replace pitcher Cameron Grimes (16-3, 99 strikeouts).
Sto-Rox is the only other team besides Chartiers-Houston or Vincentian to win a WPIAL Class A title since the classification formed in 1999. The Vikings have 10 WPIAL titles, 5 in Class A and 5 in Class AA, but none since 2006.
(Last season's record)
WPIAL CLASS AAAA
North Allegheny 14-7
WPIAL CLASS AAA
Greensburg Salem 17-4
Elizabeth Forward 17-8
Mount Pleasant 16-6
South Park 8-10
WPIAL CLASS AA
Deer Lakes 20-2
WPIAL CLASS A
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Alayna Astuto, Canon-McMillan, Sr., P
Hannah Blinn, Deer Lakes, Sr., C
Kayla Briggs, Char-Houston, Sr., P
Stacey Capp, Montour, Sr., SS
Justyne Falbo, Hempfield, Sr., SS
Anna Marie Gatti, Southmoreland, Jr., P
Kelly Haslett, Ambridge, Soph., 1B/P
Kaelin Jackson, Franklin Regional, Sr., C
Kiersten Manor, New Brighton, Sr., P
Portia McBride, Elizabeth Forward, Sr., P
Taylor Mehan, Greensburg Salem, Sr., C
Alaina Montgomery, Hempfield, Jr., OF
Heather Mueller, Ambridge, Soph., 2B/OF
Jayne Oberdorf, Greensburg Salem, Sr., P
Siera Sarver, Deer Lakes, Jr., 1B/P
Bella Valent, Beaver, Jr., C
Jess Weiss, Seton-LaSalle, Sr., C
Maddy Wensel, Norwin, Soph, C
Kirsten Wilson, Riverside, Sr., P
Giorgiana Zeremenko, Canon-McMillan, Jr., C