With a strong core of returning hitters and some talented first-year pitchers, expectations around the 2019 edition of the Penn State Altoona softball team are high.
Last season, the Lady Lions posted a 22-17-1 overall record, including a 10-8 mark in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference that tied the team for third place in the league standings. Fourth-year head coach Joe Merilli feels that his team is strong enough in all facets of the game to compete for an AMCC title this spring.
"Every year, we regularly compete to win the conference championship. This year, with the mix of newcomers, pitching depth, defense, and what we expect to be a dangerous offense, we expect to once again be at or near the top of the conference," said Merilli. "We don't have a large number of players this year, but we have outstanding quality. We will have to stay healthy, and I believe the small number will keep everyone focused on the games and create an outstanding team environment."
Giedroc was a first team All-AMCC selection last season, and she was voted the conference's Preseason Player of the Year this February. Last year, the shortstop was second in the AMCC in doubles (14), third in runs scored (38), runs batted in (30), total bases (81), on-base percentage (.497), and slugging percentage (.638), and fifth in hits (54), stolen bases (19), and batting average (.425). Showers was a second team All-Conference selection last spring, and she was mentioned alongside Giedroc as a "Player to Watch" in the AMCC for the 2019 season. The third baseman ranked fourth in the conference last season in runs scored (32), fifth in doubles (9), seventh in walks (12) and stolen bases (16), and eighth in hits (48). Giedroc and Showers also formed one of the top defensive left sides of the infield in the conference.
"We have a nice core group of returners led by Haley and Abby. Many have told me – and I see it also – that defensively, this is one of the best left sides of an infield in our conference. They have proven to make both the extraordinary plays, as well as the routine plays," said Merilli. "Offensively, both of these players will be huge contributors once again. Last year, they were one and two in batting average and stolen bases, and they only struck out a combined six times in 258 plate appearances. I expect more of the same from them, if not even more."
The Lady Lions' roster also features six additional returning players: junior catcher Jessica Willits (Jersey Shore, PA/Jersey Shore), sophomore catcher/outfielders Kaitlyn Harmon (Sunbury, PA/Shikellamy) and Cassidy Stover (Spring Mills, PA/Penns Valley), sophomore outfielder Olivia Miller (West Newton, PA/Yough), sophomore second baseman/outfielder Ellie Leyo (Irvona, PA/Glendale), and sophomore second/first baseman Meghan Marasti (Pittsburgh, PA/Penn Trafford).
"I expect Meghan and Olivia to take the next step, building on what were very good freshman seasons. Both hit over .300 and played multiple positions. This year, they should be mostly playing the same positions in the field and will be able to improve on all their offensive numbers, with Meghan at second base and Olivia in center field," Merilli explained. "I am also looking for Jess to have a breakout season. She has worked hard behind the plate to get quicker throwing out runners, in addition to improving her offensive numbers. I also expect Ellie to step up, after really providing a spark for us early in the season last year. Cassidy and Kaitlyn should also challenge for time in the outfield and fill in behind the plate as needed. Now that they have a year of playing experience, I expect them to improve as they get more playing time."
Newcomers who Merilli expects to contribute with the bat are freshman infielder Abby Allenbaugh (Patton, PA/Cambria Heights), freshman utility player Jayde Burge (Philipsburg, PA/Philipsburg-Osceola), and freshman outfielder Alexis Secrest (Mount Union, PA/Mount Union).
"Abby has a really lively bat and will get time behind the plate, as will Jayde," said Merilli. "Alexis should contribute in the outfield, and she gives us another left-handed slap hitter."
In the circle, Penn State Altoona will feature four first-year, right-handed pitchers: Sidney Lewis (Smithmill, PA/Moshannon Valley), Sarah Gearhart (McVeytown, PA/Mount Union), Brittney Dellaquila (Pottstown, PA/Owen J. Roberts), and Burge. Despite being freshmen to the team, Merilli is confident that each one has the ability to log strong innings for the team this season.
"We have what I would call four aces coming in this year. If the pitchers do as well as they did in the fall, we should be in good shape. Sarah pitched most of the innings at Mount Union High School and has really good control of just about every pitch. She was highly successful in high school, and I have no doubt that she will do the same at this level. Sidney also comes in as an accomplished pitcher from Moshannon Valley, where she pitched most of the innings. She is making the transition to college Division III pitching very well," Merilli explained. "Brittany transferred in from Bloomsburg University, where she played club softball. She was the main pitcher at Owen J. Roberts High School, and she has all the pitches and should transition well to Division III softball. Jayde did not pitch in high school, but she did pitch in travel ball and has taken pitching lessons for years. She came in the fall throwing well and really picked it up over the winter. She is throwing really well in practice, and I expect her to be a big contributor in the circle."
Merilli expects each of his four freshmen pitchers to see time at other positions in the field, as well.
"The beauty of all four of these players is that they are not only pitchers," he stated. "All can play other positions and have really good bats. So when they are not pitching, I really expect them to contribute to the team's success in other ways."
Penn State Altoona's defense should help out its freshman pitchers. Last season, the Lady Lions compiled a team fielding percentage of .948, the third-best mark in the AMCC. Merilli believes that number can improve this spring.
"This may be the best infield we have fielded since my first year. I think being able to keep Meghan at second base and rotate some of our pitchers over at first base, to go along with the best left side in the conference, makes us a very outstanding infield," he said. "We are expecting Olivia to hold down center field for the most part, and we will rotate Jayde, Ellie, Kaitlyn, Cassidy, Alexis, and Sidney in the corner outfield positions, depending on who is pitching."
Penn State Altoona softball will start its 2019 season on Tuesday, February 26, when the Lady Lions will travel to compete in a doubleheader at Bridgewater College (Va.) starting a 2:00 p.m.