New Kensington softball team eagerly awaits start of season

Although the "Old Farmer’s Almanac" says that the vernal equinox heralded spring at 12:57 p.m. on March 20, Old Man Winter just isn’t buying into that canard. And that feud is keeping the Penn State New Kensington softball team off the field and in the Athletics Center.

Since returning March 15 from a six-game swing through Orlando, the New Kensington Lady Lions have yet to set foot on a diamond. A combination of snow and rain, coupled with unseasonable temperatures, have rendered the home field at K-9 Officer Derek Kotecki Memorial Park (formerly Wolf Pack Park) unplayable and forced the squad to continue hitting, fielding and pitching inside the campus basketball facility. Even with a synthetic turf field, the season opener March 16 at Chatham University was postponed because of the windy and cold weather patterns that have stalled over western Pennsylvania.

"Our hitting is far ahead of where I expected it to be after the Florida preseason games,” said Marsili, the sixth-year head coach. “Most of our batting order is making good contact, putting the ball in play and limiting the strikeouts.”

Marsili is excited for the regular season to get under way. The Lady Lions went 1-5 down south against formidable competition and were able to groove their swings, solidify their pitching and stabilize the defense.

“We competed hard in Florida, and the games we lost were close games except the one to five-time national champion Heartland College,” said Marsili, who resuscitated the dormant program in 2009. “The players showed a lot of heart and desire. When we were behind, they kept coming back.”

Last year, Marsili guided the squad to 16th in the nation in the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association with a 9-7 conference record and a 10-12 overall mark. With a blend of clutch hitting, power and speed, the team batted .285 with 14 home runs (fourth in the USCAA), 95 runs scored and 25 stolen bases. The pitching staff combined for two shutouts, 118 strike outs and a 2.91 ERA. 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. Defense and timely hitting lapsed during the final eight games, effectively dooming their chances for a berth in the Penn State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC) playoffs. Marsili’s teams have reached the PSUAC Final Four twice in the past four seasons.

“I am expecting to make the playoffs again and challenge for the conference title,” said Marsili, a resident of Vandergrift. “We have two veteran pitchers back from last year, so I am expecting our pitching to keep us in most games.”

Key losses from last year are pitcher Tarra Oravec (Kiski Area) and third baseman Sabrina Johns (Karns City). A USCAA All-America selection, 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. Johns, who hit .359, second highest on the team, fractured her wrist and is lost for the season.

According to Marsili, the keys to the season are good pitching and clutch hitting. The defense is a work in progress as many players are learning new positions. Excellent team speed complements both the defense and offense.

“As of now, we will rely on pitching to keep the games manageable and the offense to score enough runs to win,” said Marsili, the dean of campus coaches. “We have a strong hitting team as our players are good contact hitters who will hit to all fields, and lay a bunt down when needed. We hit for power last year; hopefully, that will continue this year.”

With a solid nucleus of veterans augmented by a talented group of newcomers, the Lady Lions are poised to return to the playoffs. The team will be strong up the middle with veterans manning the catcher, pitcher, shortstop and second base positions.

“This year's team will be a mix of new inexperienced freshmen and four returning starters, including three four-year starters,” said Marsili. “The seniors will provide good leadership for the freshmen. This team is working hard and willing to do what it takes to win.”

Heading the list of returnees is senior pitcher Jenna Swank (Ford City). A four-year starter, Swank will be the ace of the staff. Her curve ball, coupled with changing speeds, keeps opposing players off balance. When she is not on the mound, Swank will be at first or third base. She provides power in the middle of the lineup as her 9 RBIs, third best on the team last year, attests.

“Jenna is solid and consistent on the mound and provides much-needed leadership,” said Marsili. “She is also a good hitter who will bat fifth in the order.”

Senior shortstop Bridget Fisher (Burrell) is a four-year starter with good range and a strong arm. She can come in to spell Swank when needed. On offense, Fisher is equipped with speed and excellent bunting skills. She was second on the team in doubles (4) and stolen bases (5).

“Bridget is an effective relief pitcher who can come in and throw strikes,” Marsili said. “At the plate, she can also hit some gap shots.”

Another four-year starter is senior second baseman Sarah Kutchko (Deer Lakes). She has great hands and blossomed into a team leader last year. A good hitter, Kutchko was third on the team in batting average in 2012.

“Sarah plays a solid second base and has improved each year at the position,” Marsili said. “With the bat, she comes up with clutch hits when we need them.”

Sophomore catcher Rachel Rojas (Norwin High School) returns behind the plate. Rojas hits for both average and power. Last year, she batted.353 with five doubles, best on the team. Her four home runs and 11 runs batted in were second on the team.

“Rachel is a workhorse behind the plate and catches every inning of every game,” Marsili said. “She will be our clean-up hitter who will provide power as well as drive in runs.”

A solid group of newcomers will handle the infield corners and patrol the outfield. Two of them will also pull pitching duty. Freshman Gabby Miller (Highlands) is the versatile, do-everything athlete. A good defensive player, she will play first base as well as pitch. On the mound, she has good movement on the ball and changes speed effectively. A line drive hitter, she is expected to help carry the offensive load. At the hot corner is freshman third baseman and pitcher Claire Fisher (Burrell), younger sister of Bridget. She has strong arm and an array of pitches. Third base is a new position for her.

“Gabby is one of our best hitters, and she will bat third in the lineup,” Marsili said. “Claire can throw hard with good control. She will be learning the third base position when not on the mound.”

Solidifying the defense up the middle is freshman center fielder Kelcey Harris (Mount Lebanon). She is a good contact hitter who can bunt and has speed. She is slated to bat second. Flanking Miller in left field will be freshman Emily Robson (Valley). She is a novice at the position but Marsili sees her making a quick adjustment. Robson has a powerful swing and should move up in the batting order as the season progresses.

“Kelcey is the only outfielder who has played the position, so we will be relying on her to make some plays,” Marsili said. “Emily is very athletic and has a strong desire to get better. I think she will become one of our best hitters.”

Sophomore Chelsea Leake (Knoch) and senior Lauren Schram (Steel Valley) will platoon in right field. Both are new to the position but are improving with each practice. Freshman Melanie Campbell (Ford City) is out with a broken finger but expected to return soon. She will vie for an outfield spot.

“As with most years, the key to the season is to keep the starters healthy,” Marsili said. “We also need the players to adjust to their new positions as soon as possible.”

ASAP could be this weekend, which is the PSUAC home opener. New Kensington meets Penn State Fayette for a 2 p.m. doubleheader on Saturday, March 29, at Kotecki Field. The PSUAC home stand continues the next day with a 2 p.m. doubleheader against Penn State Mont Alto.

Marsili's squad is scheduled to play five home doubleheaders at Kotecki Field. Located at the intersection of Wild Life Lodge and Garvers Ferry roads, the municipal field has served as home to the softball team the past five years.The 22-game schedule features 18 PSUAC games and four nonconference contests.

“I believe that we can play with anyone in the conference," Marsili said. “With our pitching, we should be in every game with a chance to win it at the end.”

Marsili, a former assistant coach at Kiski Area High School, is a certified coach and conducts numerous clinics throughout the year. His assistant is Brian Eshbaugh, who 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, visit http://psnkathletics.com/sports/sball/2013-14/schedule.

Contacts: 

Bill Woodard

Work Phone: 
724-334-6049
Home Phone: 
724-335-3502
Cell Phone: 
724-594-8421

Alumni and Public Relations Specialist

Last Updated March 27, 2014