Heading into the 2018 season, expectations are high for the Penn State Altoona softball team. The Lady Lions went 18-18 overall last year, compiled a 12-6 mark in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, and earned a berth into the Eastern College Athletic Conference's Division III Championship Tournament, accomplishing all of this with a 16-player roster comprised of 13 underclassmen. Now, with a talented group of returners, the team hopes to compete for a conference title this spring.
Penn State Altoona brings back eight players from last season, most of whom saw significant playing time over the course of the season. This core of experienced players will be crucial to the team's success this year, according to third-year head coach Joe Merilli.
"With nine freshmen on the team, we will look towards our returners to lead by example, especially early in the year," said Merilli. "We have eight returners, of which seven got significant playing time last year. I will be looking to their experience to help bring along the very talented group of freshmen players."
Leading the squad's returners are junior shortstop Haley Giedroc (Howard, PA/Bald Eagle) and junior outfielder Kelsey Bristol (Troy, PA/Troy). Giedroc was a second team All-AMCC selection during her sophomore campaign, during which she ranked third in the conference in home runs (3), sixth in total bases (65), seventh in doubles (8) and batting average (.383), eighth in hits (44) and slugging percentage (.565), 10th in stolen bases (10), and 14th in on-base percentage (.413). Bristol was a third team All-Conference pick, finishing last season 14th in the AMCC in hits (40), 17th in walks (9), 19th in runs scored (22), 20th in batting average (.351) and on-base percentage (.403), and 23rd in total bases (45). Bristol was also named to the All-Tournament Team for the ECAC Tournament.
Penn State Altoona's roster also includes six sophomore returners: third baseman Abby Showers (Philipsburg, PA/Philipsburg-Osceola), infielders Julia Helbling (Perkasie, PA/Perkasie) and Jenna Myers (Garnet Valley, PA/Garnet Valley), catcher Jessica Willits (Jersey Shore, PA/Jersey Shore), outfielder/first baseman Kaitlyn Peck (Hanover, PA/South Western), and right-handed pitcher/first baseman Sidney Shultz (Runville, PA/Bald Eagle).
Showers earned a spot on the first team of the All-AMCC squad after a strong freshman season last spring. In 2017, she ranked second among all AMCC fielders in assists (84), and she also finished sixth in stolen bases (12), 16th in hits (39), 22nd in batting average (.339), 23rd in total bases (45), and 26th in runs batted in (16). Helbling was third team All-Conference last season, batting .244 overall – including a .308 average against AMCC pitching to go along with a .333 on-base percentage and a .385 slugging percentage against conference pitchers.
The Lady Lions welcome nine freshmen to their roster this season: right-handed pitcher/second baseman Faith Barnett (Todd, PA/Tussey Mountain), catcher/outfielders Kaitlyn Harmon (Sunbury, PA/Shikellamy) and Cassidy Stover (Spring Mills, PA/Penns Valley), infielders Shiona Lonesky (Sasebo, Japan/E.J. King) and Meghan Marasti (Harrison City, PA/Penn-Trafford), second baseman/outfielder Ellie Leyo (Irvona, PA/Glendale), outfielders Olivia Miller (West Newton, PA/Yough) and Emily Prather (Philadelphia, PA/MaST Community Charter), and right-handed pitcher/outfielder Emily Strouse (Beech Creek, PA/Central Mountain).
"I expect Olivia Miller, Emily Prather, Emily Strouse, and Meghan Marasti to contribute heavily to our success," Merilli said. "In addition, Kaitlyn Harmon and Cassidy Stover give us such good flexibility at so many positions, and both are instinctive ball players. Faith Barnett will give us good innings in the circle, and Shiona Lonesky and Ellie Leyo give us probably the best depth we have had in years."
Penn State Altoona will rely on players like Bristol, Giedroc, and Showers to play on a regular basis, but with so many talented newcomers on the team, Merilli expects many players to compete for spots throughout the lineup.
"I really expect to use a lot of players with a variety of lineups this year. For the most part, I expect Haley Giedroc and Abby Showers to man the left side of our infield, while Jenna Myers, Meghan Marasti, Julia Helbling, Emily Strouse, Kaitlyn Harmon, Kaitlyn Peck, Ellie Leyo, and Sidney Shultz to battle for the right side of the infield spots at first and second base. Jenna and Meghan can both play second or shortstop, also. We have four catchers on the team, and I see Jessica Willits and Emily Strouse getting most of the work behind the plate with Cassidy Stover and Kaitlyn Harmon also able to fill in," Merilli stated. "Outfield is where you will see the most improvement, as we are very deep with outfielders this year. Kelsey Bristol will be back again from last year, but with Jenna Myers moving in from right field to second base and with the graduation of Lauren O'Donnell, we will have several players getting looks in the outfield. Kaitlyn Peck, Olivia Miller, Emily Prather, Kaitlyn Harmon, Cassidy Stover, and Emily Strouse all have really good outfield skills."
In the circle, Shultz is Penn State Altoona's lone returning pitcher from last season. After making eight appearances at pitcher in 2017, the sophomore figures to see a big spike in her playing time this spring. Strouse, Barnett, and Bristol will also figure into the pitching mix.
"Sidney Shultz has really come to the top, as far as our pitchers go. She pitched outstanding in the fall, not giving up any runs in about 11 innings of work. She has really done a good job over the winter to get herself in the best physical shape since she has been here," said Merilli. "Emily Strouse adds a very nice arm with good movement to our team, and I look forward to seeing her pitch in live games this spring. Faith Barnett brings a really wide range of pitches and spins the ball really well, and she will be a very nice change of pace pitcher with really good movement. Kelsey Bristol may get some innings also, as I was pleasantly surprised with her ability to pitch after just playing in the outfield the last two years."
"We will use a committee of pitchers this year and really not put too much on any one player," Merilli added. "I see us using all of our pitchers in specific situations and expect to have really good results."
Merilli expects his team's defense to help his pitching staff greatly. Last year, Penn State Altoona had the second-best fielding percentage (.959) of any team in the AMCC while committing the second-fewest errors (43) of any conference squad. This spring, Merilli believes his team defense will be even better.
"We have the very best defensive team we have had in the three years that I've been the head coach here," he said. "We have depth at every position and our freshman class is really sizing up to be one of the best we have had in years at Penn State Altoona."
This season, Merilli expects all three facets of the game – pitching, defense, and hitting – to come together for his team. With a good balance of experience and talent, he foresees his squad playing well this year.
"We really just need to continue to play outstanding defensive softball behind our young pitchers, while improving on our offensive output," Merilli stated. "We have been at or near the top of the conference over the past two years in pitching and defense, and we are focusing on developing and improving our offense."
Merilli is also counting on team chemistry to aid his squad, and he hopes that his players will embrace selfless attitudes for the good of the program as a whole.
"It is also very important for our team to gel on and off the field," he said. "With so many players, each one will have a role on this team, and they need to realize that it is not about individual stats, but wins and losses as a team."
Penn State Altoona softball opens its 2018 season on the road on Friday, February 23 for a 2:30 p.m. doubleheader at non-conference opponent Bridgewater College (Va.). After that, the Lady Lions will travel to Fort Myers, Fla. to compete for the first time in the Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic, which will pit Penn State Altoona against 10 different NCAA Division III teams from across the country from March 4-9.
After returning to Pennsylvania, the Lady Lions have their home-opening doubleheader against non-conference Saint Vincent College on Thursday, March 15 at 3:00 p.m. Other home doubleheaders against non-conference teams include Westminster College (Tuesday, March 20) and Chatham University (Thursday, March 22), and Penn State Altoona will also travel for non-conference twinbills at Geneva College (Saturday, March 17) and Juniata College (Tuesday, April 3).
Penn State Altoona's first AMCC doubleheader of the season is at home on Thursday, March 29 against La Roche College at 3:00 p.m. The Lady Lions will also host doubleheaders against AMCC opponents Medaille College (Saturday, March 31), D'Youville College (Saturday, April 7), Mount Aloysius College (Tuesday, April 17), and Franciscan University (Wednesday, April 25), while traveling for doubleheaders at AMCC foes Pitt-Greensburg (Wednesday, April 11), Hilbert College (Saturday, April 14), Pitt-Bradford (Saturday, April 21), and Penn State Behrend (Saturday, April 28).
"Every game is important, no matter who we're playing. I haven't even looked ahead of our first games versus Bridgewater," said Merilli. "We will work very hard this year to take every game one at a time and continue to play one pitch, one out, one inning, and one win at a time."