When any member of the Laurel High softball team comes to bat, she’ll be in a green Lady Spartans helmet.
While players from other schools can come to the plate in games wearing a batting helmet with a travel team logo, that’s not allowed at Laurel. At practices, Lady Spartans players are dressed in shades of green or other T-shirts representing the school. It’s all part of the program’s dress code. Coach Frank Duddy said the extra bit of school spirit is just one of several ingredients which has the Lady Spartans (21-2) program running full speed ahead fresh off a second straight WPIAL Class 2A championship and a state playoff win on Monday.
“See how everybody wears a Laurel shirt?” Duddy said, watching over his players go through warmup stretching and throwing drills at practice. “They have to wear a Laurel shirt. That’s my rule. No travel ball shirts, no travel ball helmets. They have to wear a Laurel shirt. When they forget or they come here straight from school and they wore their travel ball shirt, they turn it inside out.”
The fashion report for Laurel recently has seen the team in its home white tops and green pants. More importantly, the record books show the Lady Spartans are still the WPIAL champions — courtesy of a 9-3 victory over Frazier in a rematch of last year’s title game win — and into the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals after managing enough offense in a 5-3 win over Wilmington on Monday.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” Duddy said. “No Laurel team has been this far. We’re kind of pushing on that, kind of jiving on that. I hate to say we had a little hiccup (against Wilmington), but we did. We had a little speed bump. I have every expectation that they’re going to bounce back.”
For the team’s success in winning another WPIAL championship and moving into the state elite eight, the Lady Spartans are the Lawrence County High School Athletes of the Week sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“The secret to their success is their work ethic and they actually all get along,” Duddy said. “They like each other. They encourage each other. They want to see each other succeed. Even our bench. They want to see the other girls succeed.”
In both games bookending the weekend, Laurel used the pitching of Kayla Ruperto and the top half of the lineup’s power on the way to wins. The victory against Wilmington allowed the team to avoid the perceived “WPIAL hangover.” Laurel wasn’t so lucky last spring, coming out flat in a first-round state playoff loss after being crowned district champions and ending a historic season prematurely.
“I think last year we were kind of on a WPIAL high,” senior Olivia Lombardo said. “I don’t want to say we came in careless into that game (last year), but that feeling stuck with us all year, so we knew we didn’t want to go through that again. We couldn’t be in our heads and know we were going to win it.”
Cleanup hitter Ruperto is joined by the other three seniors, Lombardo, Brooke Atkins and Mackenzie Latess, to provide the speed and pop among the first four batters.
“I know in my head if I get on, Ken, Brooke or Kayla — one of them is going to hit me home,” Lombardo said. “I know Brooke and I are kind of the spark plugs. When I get on, it’s almost a guarantee that one of them is going to score me, so it helps us get going.”
Down in the order, Kaylee Withrow, Maddie Boyd and Frankilyn Duddy, the coach’s daughter, can produce big hits, while eight and nine hitters Allie Andre and Alyssa Miller are threats as well. Bekah Valenti, just a freshman, does the catching and came up with a few tough foul pop-up catches in the district championship game. The thought of replacing the top four hitters will be a daunting task, but one that can be delayed just a little bit longer with each passing victory.
“It’s going to be a huge loss next year,” Duddy said. “They’re the offense pretty much. They get it done. The bottom of the order, they do help out, they do contribute. There’s some action down there, but to be totally honest, that’s the offense. You have Kenny (Mackenzie Latess) with 56 RBIs, Rupe (Kayla Ruperto), I think has 51. They’re ungodly numbers. There’s just no replacing it.”
One player who will be back next year is Boyd. Last season, she was Laurel’s ace leading the team to its first WPIAL championship, pitching a shutout in the 1-0 win. Her pitching was so feared that when section rival Mohawk lost in last year’s state title game to Upper Dauphin, coach Brad Hruska said it wasn’t the best pitching performance his team faced all season. Instead, he said that honor belonged to Boyd, who has pitched some this year but lately has been playing in left field or as the designated player.
“She’s a good teammate,” Duddy said of the junior. “She’s happy to contribute in any way she can. She’s got a good bat, she plays good outfield. Don’t lose sight of the fact that Maddie has another year here. She’s going to be carrying the load next year pretty much probably in the way Kayla is carrying it this year.”
Team-wise, the Lady Spartans set out to accomplish three goals. So far, there are two checkmarks on the board. Time is still left for a third.
“We accomplished section, WPIAL and now it’s states,” Lombardo said. “So hopefully we can get there.”