WPIAL softball championships fraught with unlikely faces

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It could be mere coincidence or maybe a case of parity. Some believe it is an example of the development of more talented players. It might even be the effect of moving the pitching rubber back a few years ago.

Whatever the reason, there are a number of relatively new faces in this year's WPIAL softball championships.

All four title games will be played Thursday at California University. While Shaler is making its seventh title game appearance, much of the championship field might make you say: "Who are these girls?"

Mars will play Thomas Jefferson in a most unlikely Class AAA final. Mars has been to the championship once and Thomas Jefferson is making its first appearance in school history. On top of that, Mars was the No. 11 seed for the playoffs and Thomas Jefferson No. 13.

Beaver plays in the Class AA championship for the first time and South Side Beaver is making its first appearance in the Class A final.

Canon-McMillan is appearing in its third consecutive Class AAAA final, but the Big Macs were never in the title game before 2012. Deer Lakes also is making its third Class AA championship appearance but had never been to the final before 2012.

Neshannock is in the Class A final for the second consecutive year, but had made only one previous appearance.

"If there was money involved, I'd say you're looking at parity hitting," Deer Lakes coach Tony Taliani said with a laugh. "But really, I think the reason is that the sport has grown more in the last 20 years, and especially the past 10, where I think you are seeing more girls playing the sport who are better equipped with skill and knowledge."

In other words, there are more talented players to go around. Deer Lakes will start five sophomores and two freshmen against Beaver.

"Besides high school, you usually have a lot more areas now that have some very competitive travel leagues and I think more girls are playing at a higher level," said Taliani. "I would guess that a lot of these kids who are playing in the [WPIAL] finals are probably playing on a travel team after high school, and that makes more skilled players."

Thomas Jefferson coach Heidi Karcher agrees. Her team was 3-12 a season ago.

"When I played back in high school, travel ball was just starting for a lot of areas and I'm 41," said Karcher. "There wasn't a lot of travel ball. You played the sport from April to June."

But some coaches believe that a concrete reason for more competitiveness in all of softball might be the rule change in 2011, where the pitching rubber was moved back from 40 to 43 feet. Softball isn't dominated by the pitcher as much any more. Scoring has definitely increased and teams can't rely on a pitcher, which makes things more competitive.

"There were those cases where, 'Oh, this team has a girl who throws in the 60s [mph] and it's lights out,'" said Karcher. "I don't think you see too many girls like that any more.

"I think the talent is more spread out. More teams have a few really good players. It's not like one player is dominant."

Now, more teams seem to view themselves of having a chance to be competitive.

"After last year, we just wanted to be .500 this year," said Karcher. "Then after we won six games, we said maybe we could be one of those teams that made the playoffs. Then we won our first playoff game and said maybe we can win in the quarterfinals. Then it's wanting more.

"It has been a whirlwind season, but the girls are very deserving of what has happened."

Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh.

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