SPRINGFIELD — The season began with normal high expectations.
Though Springfield hadn't won a Central League softball title in a decade, it's a program that is annually one of the best in the county. The prevailing thought was that 2014 could be the Cougars' year. They were built to win, built to go deep into the postseason, built to claim championships.
Springfield (22-4) is vying for its first state title Friday morning when it plays District 11 champion Bethlehem Catholic (20-6) for the PIAA Class AAA championship at Penn State's Nittany Lion Softball Park. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m.
The Cougars feature two legitimate No. 1 pitchers — a rarity for any high school softball team — in junior Courtney Scarpato and sophomore Tori DePietro. They boast a three-time All-Delco in Lauren Scarpato, who had been a slick-fielding shortstop with a mighty bat. Despite her diminutive frame, Scarpato established herself as one of the top all-around players in the county, a standout at a premium position. But this was a new year, and coach Todd Odgers needed his most reliable and productive player over the last three seasons to switch spots on the diamond. So, not surprisingly, Scarpato turned into a groundball-snagging sure thing at third base.
Elsewhere, the lineup features a speed demon in center fielder Taylor Winkleman, lauded for her tremendous defensive instincts and power-hitting ability. She's led the county in home runs for virtually the entire season. Kaity Baumann is a slugger who found her comfort zone as a deisgnated player.
Two freshmen — second baseman Nikki DePietro and first baseman Ashley Scarpato — were thrown into the fire from Day 1 and proved their mettle. Ashley came through with a huge RBI hit in the Cougars' first playoff game — one in which they were one out from elimination — and Nikki delivered her biggest knocking of the year Tuesday, when she drove in the go-ahead run in a PIAA Class AAA semifinal win over District Seven's Greensburg Salem.
"They've both come on from the end of the regular season into playoffs," Odgers said. "They're both great hitters and they're playing with a lot of confidence. That's kind of what I hoped. When they came in as freshmen, I had them in the back of the lineup on purpose to let them get to know what high school softball is about with no stress. As the season went on and they got comfortable and started realizing this isn't big deal ... they've been very effective at the plate just like everyone else in front of them.
"I just thing with lose anything in any part of our lineup right now. They're playing with a ton of confidence."
Courtney Scarpato has pitched every inning of every game in the District One and state tournaments. She has developed a strong rapport with Mary Kate Caggiano, who emerged as the team's No. 1 backstop in the middle of the season.
"It's been really fun," Caggiano said. "I think we respect every team we play, but we're really confident. We're making the plays and getting the big hits. It's going to be so much fun playing in a big stadium -— I can't even process it. Coach Odgers was telling us at the beginning of the year that our main goal is states. In my mind, I'm thinking at the time, it's so far away. Now we're here.'
Springfield's only other trip to the state championship came in 2007. That team was composed of scrappy players who struggled early in the season, only to start streaking toward the end of the season and into the playoffs. The Cougars beat Sun Valley for the District One title on the way to PIAA Class AAA championship game. They fell to Susquehannock, 3-2, at Shippensburg University.
"The team in 2007 was a very good team that caught fire and played great. This is a great team that caught fire and is playing great," Odgers said. "To me, that would be only difference. Not to take away from anything about 2007 — they were a very good team. But this is a great team just because of the confidence level and the belief that they're always going to get it done in any situation. As a coach, you have a team that wants it so bad, you've just got to let them play. Really, I'm trying not to get in the way. I tell them the things that I think they need to know throughout a game, but I don't overdo it. I just let them go and do the things they've been doing all year. Sometimes the best coaching is knowing when to shut up and let them do their thing. It's all them right now. They're playing great ball."
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NOTES: Bethlehem Catholic sophomore pitcher Elyse Cuttic tossed a no-hitter against Radnor in the quarterfinal round. Consequently, Radnor defeated Springfield three times in 2014, including for the District One title. ... Beca has gotten this far despite finishing in fifth place in the Lehigh Valley Conference. ... PCN will have television coverage of the game beginning at 10 a.m. Online coverage is available only to PCN Plus customers.