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Penn State Altoona Softball 2017 Season Preview

Penn State Altoona Softball 2017 Season Preview

2/28/2017 — For the past seven seasons, the Penn State Altoona softball team has been a perennial contender within the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference. Since 2010, the Lady Lions have compiled a 191-91-1 overall record, including a 98-30 mark against AMCC teams. During that span, the program has won two AMCC titles, made two NCAA Tournament appearances, and achieved one Eastern College Athletic Conference South Region championship.

Heading into the 2017 season, second-year head coach Joe Merilli and the Lady Lions expect to continue that tradition of excellence. The team returns most of its top players from last spring, during which it went 27-11 overall and tied for the top record in the AMCC by going 15-3. The Lady Lions have also added a talented group of newcomers to their roster.

Headlining the Lady Lions’ group of returners is senior pitcher Kate Burge (Philipsburg, PA/Philipsburg-Osceola). Burge, who picked up second team Preseason All-American honors from Fastpitch News in January, is poised to have another big season for her team in 2017. The right-hander enjoyed a career year last spring, when she led the AMCC in shutouts (6) and was second in wins (22), complete games (25), innings pitched (209 1/3), and strikeouts (167). Opposing batters hit just .216 against her, and she finished the season with an earned run average of 1.61. Burge was a three-time AMCC Pitcher of the Week in 2016, and she was also voted first team All-AMCC and first team All-ECAC Division III South Region. She also excelled at the plate, hitting .317 while leading her team in doubles (12) and home runs (3).

“Kate had an exceptional 2016 season and came back into camp in great shape. She looks to be pitching even better than last year in practice,” said Merilli. “I expect for her to once again be our ace in the circle and have another great season. By the end of the season, I expect Kate to hold most of the career pitching records at the school. We’ll be smart with her, as far as innings go, to keep her healthy and fresh for the playoff run.”

Merilli also has high expectations for the other six returners on his team. Senior second baseman Allison Simpson (Port Matilda, PA/Bald Eagle) was a third team All-Conference selection last season after setting career-highs in doubles (7), runs batted in (21), and batting average (.303). At the other middle infield position, sophomore shortstop Haley Giedroc (Howard, PA/Bald Eagle) is coming off of a freshman season in which she was second on her team in runs scored (24) and third in slugging percentage (.438), on-base percentage (.381), hits (35), home runs (2), and total bases (53). Additionally, Simpson and Giedroc both provide strong defense up the middle for the Lady Lions.

“I expect Allie to have another big season, both in the field at second base and with the bat. She is our only other senior on the team besides Kate, and I will look to her for leadership,” said Merilli. “I also expect Haley to be a player to watch this year. She has looked so much more comfortable at the plate, and we all see what she does at shortstop when the lights go on.”

Junior outfielder Lauren O’Donnell (Beccaria, PA/Moshannon Valley) and sophomore outfielder Kelsey Bristol (Troy, PA/Troy) both return after solid seasons last year. O’Donnell was voted third team All-AMCC after batting .292 and stealing eight bases, and Bristol hit .279 while swiping 11 bags. Each player also added speed and good defense to the outfield.

Sophomore first baseman and left-handed pitcher Morgan Brumbaugh (James Creek, PA/Tussey Mountain) and sophomore third baseman Nicole Watt (Altoona, PA/Bishop Guilfoyle) add depth to Penn State Altoona’s group of returners.

“I expect a much larger contribution from Lauren in the outfield, as well as Kelsey. These two bring a speed element that we will utilize much more this year,” Merilli explained. “Morgan may see more time in the circle and at first base, and Nikki has improved her hitting and will see more at-bats this year.”

Penn State Altoona also welcomes nine freshmen to its roster. First-year infielder Abby Showers (Philipsburg, PA/Philipsburg-Osceola) should make strong contributions both at the plate and in the field. Freshman catcher Jessica Willits (Jersey Shore, PA/Jersey Shore) will be tasked with replacing the team’s former standout catcher Clarissa Keller, who graduated after last season.

“Abby should provide an outstanding bat in our lineup and an outstanding glove in the infield. She can play anywhere, and I look for big things from her,” said Merilli. “We lost our leader and field general, Clarissa Keller, behind the plate, but I believe we have found a replacement for her with Jessica. We should not see much of a drop off other than experience.”

Merilli also points to freshman utility player Jenna Myers (Garnet Valley, PA/Garnet Valley) as having the potential to make an impact with the bat and her defensive flexibility. Right-handed pitcher and first baseman Sidney Shultz (Runville, PA/Bald Eagle) and utility players Dinah Johnson (Alexandria, PA/Juniata Valley) and Brayley Lewis (Roaring Spring, PA/Bishop Guilfoyle) are also expected to see playing time.

“Jenna is an excellent athlete with good bat skills, and I can play her in several different positions. Sidney comes to us with a good bat and will get time in the circle, as well as at first base,” said Merilli. “Dinah gives us depth at the catcher position and can play most anywhere on the field. Brayley brings a big bat along with the ability to play any of the infield positions and corner outfield positions.”

Three more freshmen round out the Lady Lions’ crop of newcomers: outfielder Kaitlyn Peck (Hanover, PA/South Western), second baseman/outfielder Brooke Corbett (Red Hook, NY/Red Hook), and utility player Julia Helbling (Perkasie, PA/Pennridge).

“Kaitlyn has very good defensive skills, and Brooke and Julia will give us depth at all positions that this team has not seen in the past,” Merilli said. “With the additions of these nine freshmen, we may have the deepest roster at Penn State Altoona in a very long time.”

Merilli plans to lean on several key returners to hold down regular spots in the lineup while relying on other players’ game-to-game performances to help fill out the rest of the batting order.

“In addition to Kate still being our ace pitcher, we’ll have her in the middle of our batting order. She had a breakout year with the bat last year, and I see no different this year. We will also have lots of speed with O’Donnell, Myers, Giedroc, and Bristol in the lineup, and I see Giedroc as probably hitting in the leadoff spot to get us going early in games,” Merilli explained. “We have a good mix of speed and power, and we will put the hot hitters in the lineup because we’re so deep at every position. Our lineup will be a work-in-progress until we see how some of the many freshmen respond to playing college ball.”

Defensively, Penn State Altoona was one of the best teams in the AMCC last season, ranking second in the conference with a team fielding percentage of .958. This spring, Merilli believes that performance can be improved upon with the addition of some athletic players who can play multiple positions in the field.

“We were second in the conference in fielding percentage last year, and I expect to be first this year. This may be the deepest squad at every defensive position that I have ever coached,” said Merilli. “When you look at our team, we have at least five high school shortstops on the roster, which tells you the athletic ability we have. I really think if we do have a few bumps and scrapes, we have the depth to be able to rest people and not have a big drop off from the starters.”

Merilli knows he can count on more strong pitching and defense from his team this season, but he recognizes that the offense needs to be more consistent than last year. He points to several close games from last season that could have played out much differently if his team was able to put more runs on the board, especially a pair of tough 3-2 losses in the conference tournament.

“I think we will continue to be strong in the circle and defensively, but we need to be better at the plate and score a few more runs to put us over the top,” Merilli stated. “In the playoffs last year, our two losses were both 3-2 games, with one of those being in 10 innings. I expect we will be a much-improved offensive team this year, while continuing our strong defensive and pitching game.”

To start its 2017 schedule, Penn State Altoona softball will travel to Florida rather than Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the team has competed in previous seasons. From Saturday, March 4 through Friday, March 10, the Lady Lions are scheduled to play 12 different schools from around the country in the Central Florida Rebel Spring Games, which are based in Kissimmee, Fla.

The Lady Lions return home and travel to play defending Presidents’ Athletic Conference champion Saint Vincent College on Wednesday, March 22 at 3:00 p.m. Penn State Altoona’s home opener follows on Monday, March 27 at 3:00 p.m. versus another PAC team, Westminster College.

Penn State Altoona opens AMCC play on Wednesday, March 29 when it hosts Pitt-Greensburg at 3:00 p.m. Other home AMCC games are against Pitt-Bradford (Saturday, April 1 at 1:00 p.m.), Hilbert College (Saturday, April 8 at 1:00 p.m.), and defending AMCC champion Penn State Behrend (Saturday, April 22 at 1:00 p.m.). The Lady Lions also host non-conference Juniata College for a home date on Tuesday, April 18 at 3:00 p.m.

The Lady Lions will travel to face AMCC foes La Roche College (Tuesday, April 4 at 3:00 p.m.), Mount Aloysius College (Wednesday, April 12 at 3:00 p.m.), D’Youville College (Saturday, April 15 at 1:00 p.m.), Franciscan University (Wednesday, April 26 at 3:00 p.m.), and Medaille College (Saturday, April 29 at 1:00 p.m.).

Photo: Senior pitcher Kate Burge (left) and senior second baseman Allison Simpson (right) are the Lady Lions' top two returners heading into the 2017 season.

TAGS: women's softball