South Xtra: Thomas Jefferson's turnaround ends in PIAA loss

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Last summer, following her first year as head coach at Thomas Jefferson, Heidi Karcher received a package in the mail.

Inside the package was a manila envelope. The envelope, sent by a WPIAL umpire, contained lineup cards. They were sent as a joke to remind Karcher of the one time she ran out of lineup cards during the season. The letter contained something else, too -- a card with an important message: Good things come to those who wait.

The message resonated with Karcher.

After the 2012 season she made the difficult decision to leave Peters Township after one season. She had just helped guide the Indians to the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals and a 15-win season. She was going to have all but three starters return from that team. But an opportunity arose that Karcher could not pass up.

John "Hoppy" Mitruski was retiring following the 2012 season after three-plus decades as head coach of the Thomas Jefferson softball team. Karcher, a resident in the West Jefferson Hills School District and a teacher at Thomas Jefferson since 1996, knew this was finally her chance to coach, teach and live in the same district.

Her first season at TJ was hardly routine. With only one starter back, the team struggled through a 3-12 campaign, finishing last in Section 3-AAA.

"It was mentally exhausting last year," Karcher said. "So much time was put into the season and it wasn't very successful. You kind of question yourself -- 'Am I doing the right thing?' I had to keep myself mentally strong.

"There were times last year sitting on the bus that I second guessed myself leaving a job where I had a lot of returners coming back but I knew TJ was where I wanted to be."

The arrival of the card in the summer could not have come at a better time. Karcher still has it displayed on a desk in her study at home.

"I see it every day," Karcher said.

Good things come to those who wait.

Karcher and her team did not have to wait long.

In her second year on the job, Thomas Jefferson needed exactly three games to match their season win total of the previous year. They exceeded the win total in the fourth game. They exceeded expectations all the way through the season, even their own.

The original goals in November were to win more than three games and finish .500.

Those goals were readjusted as Thomas Jefferson began 6-0. There was a midseason stretch where the Jaguars dropped four of six games but they regrouped to win back-to-back games against Belle Vernon Area and South Park and set up a meaningful final week of section play.

Entering the final section game of the season, Thomas Jefferson needed to defeat second-place Elizabeth Forward to clinch a WPIAL playoff berth. Mission accomplished. Just like that Jaguars were playoff-bound as a No. 13 seed.

Once in the tournament, they strung together upset after upset, none bigger than a 4-3 win against defending WPIAL champion Greensburg Salem in the semifinals. In the WPIAL finals, Thomas Jefferson defeated No. 11 Mars Area, 5-3, to capture the program's first WPIAL

"I am most proud of how the girls regrouped after last year's season," Karcher said. "They were resilient to fight back after having such a bad season and managed to stay driven after we met every goal. The goals kept getting better and bigger and the girls kept meeting them."

After the WPIAL final Thomas Jefferson defeated Bellefonte, 8-3, in the first round of the PIAA tournament before losing last Thursday to Greensburg Salem, 2-1, in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Five senior starters will graduate -- center fielder Becca Bachman, third baseman Janelle Allison, first baseman Kyla Prickett, catcher Amanda O'Toole and right fielder Tara Conley.

Prickett was one of the most improved batters in the WPIAL this season. She came through big-time during Thomas Jefferson's postseason run.

Allison was forced to move from right field to third base after an injury to a teammate and she was one of the best defensive players on the team.

O'Toole was integral behind the plate, calling games for sophomore pitcher Lacie Lautner who grew by leaps and bounds through the season.

After a breakout freshman year, sophomore shortstop Rachel Bowers had another strong season at the plate.

While it may seem like an overnight success story, it hardly felt that way to Karcher.

"I don't think it came very quickly," Karcher said. "We had a very long season. We never really knew what was going to happen until the last week of the season. We had to continually work every week."

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