Softball team has antidote for polar vortex: daily dose of Florida sunshine

Polar vortexes, wintry mixes, and the ubiquitous potholes will be a distant memory for the Penn State New Kensington softball team March 9 as it covers the distance between Upper Burrell, Pa., and Orlando, Fla.

The New Kensington Lady Lions will make the 981-mile trek and then break out the shorts and sunscreen and begin spring training March 10, in Clermont, Fla., with preseason practices and games. While the weather will be closer to freezing on the western side of the commonwealth, it will be closer to 80 degrees on the east coast side of central Florida. The Sunshine State will provide the first opportunity for the team to play outside.

"Going south will give the players as much field time as possible before we have to face conference opponents,” said Mike Marsili, beginning his sixth season as head coach. “The outfielders can actually shag fly balls, and we can face live pitching instead of hitting off of the machine.”

During January and February, Marsili had the team doing its conditioning, fielding, and hitting in the Athletics Center. The squad worked out in the weight room, fielded grounders in the gymnasium, and took swings inside the batting cage. In addition, pitchers threw on the sidelines while position players executed defensive drills.

"We can only do so much in the gym, so I'll be excited to get them on the field and see what they can do," said Marsili, a resident of Vandergrift. "The Florida schedule gives the coaches an opportunity to analyze players' strengths and determine their positions."

The team will spend six days in Florida and will play preseason games against West Virginia Wesleyan University; Mott Community College and Macomb Community College from Michigan; Cuyahoga Community College from Cleveland; Heartland Community College from Illinois; and Community College of Rhode Island.

The schedule is not all diamond-related as it provides time for a water park adventure and a trip to Disney World. And in keeping with the spirit of the campus' spring break, which coincides with the Florida excursion, the players will also have some beach time.

“We want everyone to have a good time and get to know their new teammates,” Marsili said. “I hope to use the Florida experience to get off to a fast start like last year.”

Last season, the New Kensington Lady Lions jumped out to an 8-1 record in the first half of the schedule, before reversing course and going 1-7 during the second half. The defense and timely hitting went south, so to speak, during the final eight games, effectively dooming their chances for a berth in the Penn State University Athletic Conference playoffs. The team finished with a 9-7 PSUAC record and a 10-12 overall mark. Marsili’s teams have reached the PSUAC Final Four twice in the past four seasons.

“After our strong start last year, I was very surprised and disappointed that we didn't make the playoffs, Marsili said. “We needed one more win but couldn't get it. Looking back, I can pin point our trouble to defense. We pitched well and hit the ball well, but made way too many errors and lacked the clutch hit.”

Marsili returns four starters from a year ago, including sophomore Rachel Rojas (Norwin High School), a power-hitting catcher. Last season, Rojas hit .353 with five doubles, best on the team. Her four home runs and 11 runs batted in were second on the team. Three seniors -- pitcher/first baseman Jenna Swank (Ford City), shortstop/pitcher Bridget Fisher (Burrell) and second baseman Sarah Kutchko (Deer Lakes) provide stability and solid defense up the middle.

“This year's team will be a mix of experienced and inexperienced,” Marsili said. “We have had a rash of injuries so far and lost a few starters due to a variety of reasons. So we will have to rely on some new people and have others playing out of position.”

Top casualty was senior pitcher Tarra Oravec (Kiski Area), a United States Collegiate Athletic Association All-America selection. At the plate, Oravec led the team in average (.444), RBIs (29), triples (2), and home runs (8). One the mound, she went 7-9, posting a 3.27 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 94 innings. During the summer, Oravec turned professional -- in another sport, powerlifting. While her professional status did not affect her softball eligibility, she could not juggle academics, softball and the new vocation. Oravec remains at the campus to finish her bachelor’s degree in administration of justice.

One of the injured is sophomore third baseman Sabrina Johns (Karns City), who hit .359, second highest on the team. Johns fractured her wrist and could be lost for the season.

“But we do have three seniors returning to provide much needed leadership for the freshmen,” Marsili said. “Everyone has worked very hard at practice, and they all seem eager to learn and improve. Our pitching seems solid, so we are trying to find the right player for each position.”

It won’t take long for the New Kensington Lady Lions to put what they learned in Florida to the test. A day after returning from spring break, the 2014 regular season gets under way at 1 p.m., Sunday, March 16, with a nonconference doubleheader at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. A day after the vernal equinox is the home opener at 2 p.m., Friday, March 21, with a doubleheader against Southern State (Ohio) Community College at K-9 Officer Derek Kotecki Memorial Field (formerly Wolf Pack Park) in Lower Burrell, Pa. Whether Kotecki field will be playable is another matter.

"We have had so much snow, the fields will take a long time to dry out," Marsili said. "I scheduled Chatham as an away game because they have synthetic turf field."

Marsili is a certified coach and conducts numerous clinics throughout the year. His assistant, Brian Eshbaugh, was the head coach of the Lady Lions for three years, 2002-05. Eshbaugh guided New Kensington to two PSUAC championships.

For the full softball schedule and roster, visit

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Last Updated March 05, 2014