Defense proves invaluable to Highlands softball team

·5 min read

Jun. 10—The Highlands softball bats and the players swinging them have proven themselves all season with high hit and run totals.

The Golden Rams offense continued that trend Monday with 13 hits and seven runs against Clearfield in a PIAA Class 4A first-round victory in DuBois.

Just as key, but sometimes overlooked, has been the play of the Highlands defense, which has taken away numerous runs from the opposition.

"I don't know if you can count how many runs we've saved on defense this year," junior center fielder Maera Williams said. "We knew coming into the season that the defense was going to be strong. We just want to be ready to make plays and give (junior pitcher) Jaycee (Haidze) confidence. She's working her butt off, so we want to work our butts off, too."

The defense hopes to be on display again Thursday as Highlands (17-5-1) heads to Mt. Aloysius in Cresson to face District 3 Bishop McDevitt (23-2) in a quarterfinal game.

First pitch is slated for 4 p.m.

"If Jaycee is down in the count, the defense is right there to tell her, 'We got you' and for her to put it right in there," Highlands coach Jen Koprivnikar said. "They are ready to make plays at any time."

The Golden Rams gloves were on display Monday behind Haidze.

Williams had perhaps the play of Monday's game when she ran nearly 40 feet to make a diving catch on a sinking gap shot off the bat of Clearfield junior standout Emma Hipps. The play ended the inning, kept the Bisons off the base paths and kept them from rallying from a 5-0 deficit.

"As soon as she hit it, I got a good jump on it," Williams said. "I knew I had to go all out. We had two outs, bottom of the fifth with the game still on the line. I wanted to lay out and get that ball to prevent them from scoring."

Williams' play came just one batter after junior shortstop Jess Cekada snagged a soft liner near second base that was earmarked for the outfield.

"It's a contagious thing on defense, just as it can be on offense, Williams said. "We just want to keep making plays for each other and keep it rolling."

Junior first baseman Abbie Deiseroth has stretched and scooped to record outs throughout the playoffs, including a couple in Monday's game.

"Everyone is there to support everyone else," said Deiseroth, who spent some time in the pitching circle this season in addition to her work at first.

"If one of us makes a mistake on defense, we're there to let them know there is the next play. We make sure to work hard every practice on defense so we are ready to go in a game."

Senior third baseman Kylie Zourelias snagged a screaming liner that was tailing foul to record the first Clearfield out in the bottom of the fourth and not give the Bison hitter another chance.

"Kylie didn't give her any new life," Koprivnikar said.

The Bison got two runners on in the fourth, but Haidze recorded a pair of strikeouts to end the threat.

All of the defensive efforts are not lost on Haidze, who said her confidence is high in her defense.

"They are always there," said Haidze, who has 48 strikeouts in five postseason games. "I have confidence in all of my pitches knowing they are going to back me up if the ball gets hit. When there are runners on base or the bases are loaded, I count on them to make plays to help get me out of it."

Haidze said she relies on her batterymate, sophomore catcher Kassidy Cambal.

"Kass back there really makes me look good," Haidze said. "We're always on the same page with every call. If one of my pitches is high or in the dirt, she is right there to get it. Not much gets by her."

Cambal, in her first year as a varsity starter, said she has grown in confidence, whether it is calling pitches while working with Haidze or making calls while surveying the entire defense.

"Jaycee and I really work well together," said Cambal, who first caught Haidze in middle school. "Going to lessons and working outside of practice has also helped in the games.

"Whether it is a routine play to first on a grounder or a pop-up to a diving play in the outfield like Maera had, I have confidence looking out from where I am. I have seen it all season."

Throwback Thursday

The Golden Rams made history Monday with the program's first PIAA playoff win, but Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of Highlands' first and only other trip to the PIAA tournament.

The 1980 Golden Rams won a section title and were the only team to defeat 25-1 North Hills on its way to the Class AAA state title.

That Indians squad recently was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame.

Highlands, however, didn't advance far enough in the 1980 WPIAL playoffs to earn a state berth.

But the Golden Rams of 1981, under coach Anita Urik, made it to the WPIAL semifinals and won the consolation game to finish third behind Class AAA champ North Hills and runner-up Bethel Park.

Highlands was matched up with City League champion Carrick in the PIAA Round of 16. The Raiders topped the Golden Rams, ending their season.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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