South Xtra: After hot start, TJ softball team fights to stay in hunt


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The season is young and her team is young, Thomas Jefferson softball coach Heidi Karcher is quick to remind anyone who inquires about her Jaguars.

It is hard to ignore, however, the vast improvement in results in the Jaguars, now in their second year under Karcher.

After finishing 3-12 overall and in last place in Class AAA Section 3 last spring, Thomas Jefferson (7-3, 3-3) started this season with six wins, including a pair of section wins against Yough and Belle Vernon Area.

After the strong start, however, TJ ran into some rocky times, losing three of four. But overall, the needle is pointing up.

"So far so good but it is really early," Karcher said. "It is really early so anything can happen."

Thomas Jefferson was able to escape the extended Western Pennsylvania winter and travel to Myrtle Beach, S.C., last month to participate in the Ripken Experience.

Over two days, Thomas Jefferson posted wins against three teams from New Jersey and against fellow WPIAL competitor Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a Class A program located in Moon.

"The key to any spring sport in Western Pennsylvania is to get down there," Karcher said. "Last year, we didn't get outside at all -- we went right into game play.

"This year, we were able to get four games in, a scrimmage, our JV was able to play, we were able to see how kids were doing at different positions.

"If we didn't do that, I don't know if we would have started so strong. Our team is so young, so with the weather, it is just not conducive to jump right into the season."

Thomas Jefferson only graduated one senior from last season but overall the team remains young with only three senior starters while three freshmen who are all seeing varsity playing time have been added to the roster.

"It is a relatively young team," Karcher said. "There is a lot of youth there."

Karcher previously coached at Peters Township where she had pitcher Tara Konopka in 2012. Konopka was one of the top pitchers in the state. She is currently pitching at Drexel University.

This year Karcher has an entirely different pitching situation, with two starters and another pitcher who comes on in relief.

"When I was coaching at Peters, I had Konopka and she would just go and go and go," Karcher said.

This season Karcher has been using sophomore Lacie Lautner and freshman Alysa Fairman as her starters with senior Janelle Allison coming on in relief. Allison, a starter last season, provides a change of pace to the harder throwing Lautner and Fairman.

"Lacie came up from JV and I am hoping she can maintain what she is doing and I wanted to give Fairman some varsity experience," Karcher said. "It is hard coming in on varsity and everyone is expecting everything. It is nice to have Janelle coming from the quote/unquote bullpen. We will see how it works, but it is so early in the season."

The multiple available arms will be a benefit this season as weather postponements will likely force teams to play up to four section games in some weeks.

"You screw up one week and you are done," Karcher said. "That is what we are trying to get across to them. I am happy with what has happened thus far, but people have no idea how early it is."

Sophomores Rachel Bowers and Emily Schneider, senior Rebecca Bachman and freshman Lindsey Kalup have provided the top bats in the lineup so far for Thomas Jefferson. Schneider went 3 for 3 with a double and home run against Belle Vernon Area on April 1.

Bowers plays shortstop and bats leadoff ahead of junior left fielder Emma Hedrick, freshman right fielder Sydney Flinn and Kalup, the cleanup hitter who starts at first base.

Bachman and Allison bat fifth and sixth. Bachman starts in center field and Allison plays third base when she is not pitching. Schneider and senior Amanda O'Toole split time at catcher. Sophomore Bayli Moon starts at second base with junior Lauren Herazo, senior Kyla Prickett and sophomore Taylor Covelli available to pinch hit.

That 2-0 section start did little to separate Thomas Jefferson from the pack in the section. Through Tuesday, Southmoreland (6-1, 5-0) led the section standings followed by Elizabeth Forward (6-3, 5-1) and West Mifflin (9-2, 4-2), then TJ.

"I know West Mifflin and EF are always battling for the top," Karcher said. "Yough's bats are very impressive, I am not sure their record reflects what they have there.

"If we keep playing the way we have the potential to play, we will be battling for a playoff spot. Those three playoff spots, I would love to be able to see the future and see who is in them. You read those scores and you see teams winning by only one run and other teams getting 10-runned. It really is anybody's game."


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