Neumann softball roster shows much-needed growth

St. John Neumann opened last season with only nine players but still recorded the best year in program history. The Knights broke their record for wins a second straight time and reached the playoffs for the first time.

And that might have just been the start.

OK, it might take a while before that statement becomes fact but good times appear on the horizon again. Just give it some time.

Neumann (0-3) has 14 players out this season so it actually has a bench. Half of those players are freshmen, however, and many of the starters are newcomers. Still, improvement is being made and the future looks bright, especially since the junior high program also is solid.

“If the girls stay together, just think of what we’re going to be,” Neumann coach Ray Perchinski said. “Once we get a few more games and some practices outside we’ll be OK and that’s the big thing.”

Neumann did not have any outdoor practices before playing its season opener against Bloomsburg. It lost that game 20-8 and struggled defensively, but has steadily improved since. Although the Knights lost 10-0 at Muncy last Tuesday, they showed plenty of promise, playing a solid defensive game. Freshman pitcher Marice Fischetti also scattered seven hits and showed that she too is developing.

Muncy is a HAC-III title contender that was an out from beating Class A state finalist Southern Columbia in last year’s district semifinals. Still, the Knights were competitive and did not really struggle until the fifth inning. It was an encouraging upward trend against a good team.

The Knights have some really good players too. Catcher Rachel Danneker is one of the best around. She has a rocket arm and nearly threw out three runners against Muncy. Maddie Dincher is a solid hitter and freshman shortstop Megan Helminiak is coming on strong.

Conditions have been tough for a team that desperately needed ample preseason outdoor practice time. Still, the Knights are making progress. Who knows what the record will be by season’s end but it does not matter. The future is where Neumann appears especially strong and that is when it might again make history.

“After our first game I asked the girls what they thought of their first practice outside,” Perchinski said. “With what we’ve had to work with they are doing a nice job. I think we showed that our infield is going to be pretty solid and it’s fun. This is why we do it. I like where we’re going.”

EVERYBODY PLAYS: First-year Muncy coach Chris Ebner really does not have a set lineup. Watch the team’s 20 regular-season games this year and one might see 20 different lineups. The Indians have a blend of talented underclassmen and returning starters and that provides a lot of depth.

It also means every player should be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

“These young ladies are working hard and I told them other day I’ll change lineups all year long. That’s what we do and how we do it,” Ebner said. “That’s what we preach: be ready. I’m not a fan of going with the same nine all year. That starts to make it hard to keep practices going and meaning a lot.”

The approach has paid dividends so far. Muncy is 3-0, outscoring those opponents, 30-0. Pitcher Amanda Kustanbauter has allowed just five hits and thrown 17 straight scoreless innings while the offense has been productive up and down. The bench has come up big too as pinch hitters Nikki Scott and Nicole Harer combined to go 2-for-2 with two RBIs against Neumann. All three pinch-hitters Ebner used in that game reached base.

Muncy was an out from reaching states last year and has some good players back from that team, especially at the top of the lineup. Still, the outfield is all new and the Indians are trying to replace more than 250 career starts. The more help they have, the better. That includes Ebner’s assistant coaches too who he said also have been instrumental to the team’s solid start.

“Everyone is working extremely hard. Every single girl is an athlete and you’ll see lineups all year long that are different. It’s where you’re at going into it,” Ebner said. “They are athletes and that’s how I treat them. The coaches we have are great and they give me perspectives on different things and I take all input. if I’m missing something I want to get called on it. I don’t want to see everything through my eyes.”

EXTRA BASES: Liberty started strong last week, routing Sullivan County and Bucktail by a 27-2 combined margin. The Mounties delivered 23 hits in those wins and five players delivered at least one multi-hit performance. Mariah Berguson went 5-for-7 with five RBIs … Jersey Shore’s offense came alive in an 11-10 loss at Milton on Friday. The Bulldogs collected 14 hits and Kayla Allen went 4-for-5 with a triple. Holly Peacock, one of the area’s premier players, had three hits and finished a home run shy of hitting for the cycle … Montoursville (2-1) has won two straight games and pitcher Cayla Treaster is off to a strong start. She has allowed just six runs in three games. She also held Central Columbia to a season-low three runs. That is especially impressive considering the Blue Jays have scored eight and 23 runs, respectively, against 2012 state finalists Warrior Run and Southern Columbia.