South/North Xtra: Thomas Jefferson, Mars an unlikely championship game meeting

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When the WPIAL revealed its playoff bracket for the Class AAA softball championship three weeks ago, there would have been few people bold enough -- or psychic enough -- to predict this title game matchup.

Nonetheless, No. 13 seed Thomas Jefferson (14-5), the third-place team in Section 3-AAA, will take on No. 11 seed Mars Area (12-4), which tied with Highlands for second place in Section 5-AAA, for the district championship at 4:30 p.m. today at California University of Pennsylvania's Lilley Field.

"My goal for this season was to hopefully be .500," second-year Thomas Jefferson coach Heidi Karcher said. "Once we did that, I said I hope we could try to make the playoffs. Then once we were in [the playoffs], win a game and so on.

"I always put pressure on myself. The girls just do what they do naturally. Deep down in my heart, I want to move on."

Veteran Mars coach Michele Goodworth has entered the title game from a different route but with the same passion, dedication and confidence in her team.

"I knew what my team was capable of doing," Goodworth said. "We were section champs the previous two years. The bracket has really worked out in our favor. The kids have risen to the occasion. This is the best offensive team I have had in 16 years.

"[The coaches] knew what [our players] had, but I don't know if the girls knew. It was a tough season. It is not unrealistic [for us to be in the title game] because the team is talented. They had to believe first before we could get to this point."

Although both teams' presence in the championship game is somewhat of a surprise, the Jaguars have defied long odds of making it to this point. Just last season, Karcher's first as TJ's head coach, the Jaguars recorded just three wins.

"I am surprised, to be honest with you," Karcher said. "I didn't expect us to be where we are. It isn't like we just missed it last year.

"I love the game of softball. I demand respect and perfection from the players. My first year was hard after [the program] had the same coach [John Mitruski] for 30 some years.

"All the girls are here for the same reason. They all get along. There is a lot to be said about that. It is a different team atmosphere."

The Jaguars got to the title game by being the giant-killers, beating Section 5 champion Knoch, the No. 4 seed, in the first round, No. 5 seed Trinity in the quarterfinals and defending WPIAL champion Greensburg Salem, the No. 1 seed, in the semifinals.

"I didn't even know they were the Class AAA champion last year," Karcher said. "That whole seeding can make or break you. [Greensburg Salem was] a tough team to beat. They have a lot of power.

"Lacie [Lautner, the starting pitcher] and Amanda [O'Toole, the catcher] worked well together. Amanda called a good game behind the plate."

The Fightin' Planets earned their way by beating a pair of section champs in South Fayette in the quarterfinals and Blackhawk in the semifinals. They also took down No. 7 Elizabeth Forward in extra innings in the semifinals.

"The biggest thing for us is that we have not scouted our opponents very much," Goodworth said. "We try to feel them out but we have not relayed a ton of information to the girls. Only the information we think they could benefit from.

"It is about them challenging themselves and making plays. We can have a different player step up every game. It has been pretty fantastic to watch them."

The biggest contributor to step up has been sophomore pitcher Niki Schlegel. Schlegel was 8-3 in the regular season and has kept her squad in a position in all three postseason games to secure the win.

"We realized coming into this season that she has taken total control," Goodworth said. "Opponents are going to put the ball in play. It is just a matter of our defense making plays.

"She is the quarterback of the team. She has the attitude and mentality above a sophomore. She has been spectacular."

The Jaguars have made history already, reaching their first WPIAL softball title game in school history.

Meanwhile, the Planets are 1-0 in WPIAL title games, winning the championship against Ambridge Area in 2006.

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