Escaping the Pittsburgh winter to travel south to play preseason games has been a WPIAL tradition for years for district high school softball teams.
Some winters the trips are more important than others.
This is one of them.
With a seemingly endless winter in Western Pennsylvania, Montour escaped to North Carolina to play three varsity games on March 21-22. The chance to get outside on grass against an opponent proved invaluable to a Montour team under first-year coach Sarah Capp.
Capp, a former Montour and Robert Morris University standout, takes head coaching duties after one year as the program's middle school coach. Capp must replace a pair of all-section standouts, center fielder Alyssa McMurtrie and a familiar face in her younger sister, former Montour shortstop Stacey Capp.
"Stacey and Alyssa were a phenomenal addition to the team and they did a lot to carry that team last year," Capp said. "Filling shortstop and center field is definitely difficult."
The losses up the middle hurt but the Spartans will be boosted by the return of four-year starting catcher, Malory Gerst, an all-section choice last season.
"Malory has four years of experience behind the plate," Capp said. "She keeps the team in line. Every day she is getting better. It is nice to have someone back there who has some experience, considering we lost two others up the middle."
Gerst's experience will be invaluable this year as she handles a three-person pitching rotation consisting of seniors Aimee Miller and Olivia Dixon and junior Rachel Donovan. Dixon and Donovan are returnees from last season while Miller comes over to the Montour program from Sto-Rox, which folded its traditionally strong softball program after last season.
"We are not looking to call someone our number one," Capp said. "We are looking for it to be a team effort. If you can put two or three different pitchers in the same game, that keeps the other team off balance."
Montour lost its first two games in North Carolina but bounced back to win its final game.
"I think our trip down to North Carolina was an overall success," Capp said. "We saw a lot of really good teams down there. We were looking to see what we had and what our strengths were. Our offense was great, it picked up through the tournament and our defense was excellent almost every single inning."
After being held to one run in its season opener, Montour scored 17 runs over the next two games.
Upon returning home the Spartans were thrown right into the fire against defending section champion Trinity. Montour lost to the Hillers, 10-3, then dropped another section contest to South Fayette, 8-2. The Spartans (3-4, 2-2) bounced back with consecutive section victories against West Allegheny, 6-4, on Monday, and Ringgold, 6-4, Tuesday.
"We probably don't want to start off the first game seeing one of the teams that we will fight against for the playoffs, but there is nothing we can do about it," Capp said, referring to the Section 2-AAA opener against Trinity. "We just have to forget about it and get back out there."
Montour returns five starters this season and welcomes two former Sto-Rox starters in Miller and third baseman Alexis Giles, a junior.
Senior Stephanie Seibert, the team's leadoff batter, is a returning starter at second base. Giles bats third behind another newcomer to the team, freshman first baseman Elaine Huntley.
Gerst bats cleanup ahead of two new starters, freshman designated player Leah Vith and junior shortstop Kristin Trohaugh. Senior outfielder Megan Vacco is a returning starter batting seventh with junior outfielder Marissa DiClemente and sophomore center fielder Dana Parker, turning over the lineup.
"There was talk about the Sto-Rox girls in the summer, we knew we were going to get a couple," Capp said. "I was really looking forward to seeing what they could bring to the team and I have no doubt they will have an impact.
"The freshmen, I definitely knew they were coming, those girls I knew could definitely start for the varsity team and they are proving that this year."