North Xtra: Mars girls handle road hazards well

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There has been no place like the road so far this season for the Mars Area softball team.

Weather postponements at its home field caused the team to play its first seven games on the road. Mars’ first home game of the season was scheduled for Wednesday against Hampton.

Nonetheless, the road has treated the Planets well. Through seven games they are 5-2 overall and 3-1 in Section 5-AAA following a non-section loss Monday against Class AAAA North Hills.

“They have actually handled [all of the road games] very well,” coach Michele Goodworth said. “They don’t even think twice about it, they have played away so much.”

Some of the team’s classmates can relate. The Mars Area boys and girls swimming teams have never played host to a meet at their school because the school does not have a pool. That did not stop the boys team from capturing a WPIAL Class AA championship this season.

The softball team is looking for similar results and with eight returning starters from a section-championship team a year ago, anything is possible.

Mars graduated pitcher Taylor Rotz, an all-section choice from last season who is now pitching at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In her place steps sophomore Niki Schlegel.

“Niki has speed and she throws a few different pitches,” Goodworth said. “Niki is the kind of kid who rises to the occasion. She gets in there and gets her job done. Teams have hit her so far this year but defensively we have made some pretty good plays and we have been able to get out of innings.”

Schlegel has been working with another new starter, freshman catcher Marina Manuppelli.

The battery is surrounded by an experienced team including senior center fielder Erin Hershman, an all-section choice last season. Hershman is a Robert Morris University recruit. She belted a program-record nine home runs last season and has already hit three this year while maintaining a .467 batting average hitting out of the number three spot in the lineup. She has the rare combination of power at the plate and speed and range in center field.

“In the field she is so quick,” Goodworth said. “She gets to pretty much everything.”

Hershman throws right-handed but bats left-handed.

She bats third behind leadoff hitter Suzanne Papik, a junior shortstop, and sophomore third baseman Blake Kitt. Senior Kasey Jones plays first base and bats cleanup. Manuppelli and Schlegel bat fifth and sixth.

Rounding out the lineup is sophomore second baseman Mallory Eperesi, senior left fielder Shelby Huber and senior right fielder Jeanna Sybert.

Senior Paige Castora is a key reserve who sees playing time in right and left field. Sophomore Katelyn Hoover, junior Hunter Bereburg and senior Kassandra Johnson are also available off the bench,

The experience on the team is not limited to the playoffs. Goodworth is now in her 16th season, all of which she has coached alongside assistant Mike DelDuca.

Mars has already posted non-section wins at Hopewell and at Pine-Richland. In the section it started with a 13-1 win at Indiana before edging Highlands, 2-1.

Waiting eight days between games, Mars lost, 10-5, its next time out at Hampton. Unable to hold onto a 4-0 second-inning lead, Mars committed its first two errors of the season.

“Once we committed that first error we had a mental breakdown,” Goodworth said. “We were a little shocked to lose to Hampton, but it is better that it happens now so we can get it all out of our system.

“I think there are expectations that we have had. We made it to the first round of the playoffs last year, obviously we would love to extend that run.”

After waiting eight days between the Highlands and Hampton game, Mars played Knoch the very next game after Hampton.

“We regrouped after that [Hampton] game and we talked about how important it was to play Knoch and come away with a win,” Goodworth said.

Mars did just that, winning, 5-3, and keeping its hopes for a third consecutive section title alive and well.

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