As one of Bob Kalp’s star pupils and arguably the most decorated player in program history, Tina Madison knew just what she was getting into when she took over for her former coach at Hempfield.
Filling in for a bona fide legend at her alma mater, Madison could have easily crumbled under the weight of the massive expectations that come with the position. Instead, she looked at things with a different perspective — and her approach seems to be working.
“I honestly was lucky,” said Madison, now in her second year at the helm. “I have a lot of friends in the WPIAL who coach. Walking into a culture that was already established, it’s huge. … I sometimes still can’t believe that this has happened, that I am leading them. It’s literally a dream come true.
“I sometimes wake up and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m seriously the softball coach.’”
Known for his rigorous practices and strict attention to detail, Kalp retired in 2021 after 25 years as the Spartans’ softball coach — and he didn’t coach many players better than Madison. Then known as Tina Skelly, she starred as a dominant pitcher from 1998-01 and still holds several school records, including the lowest ERA in a season (0.72 in 2000) and most innings pitched in a season (180 in 2001). Madison ranks second in career strikeouts (598) and third in pitching wins (52), and she helped lead Hempfield to its first state title in 1999.
As a coach, Madison spent two years as an assistant at Penn-Trafford and one year as an assistant with the Spartans under Kalp, and all along she has coached the Beverly Bandits, a high-level travel softball team. Still, she knew the standard she would be held to as a first-time varsity head coach at a place like Hempfield. And having seen Kalp’s methods up close, she didn’t want to make many changes after taking the reins last spring.
“Obviously I’m different. I’m a 40-year-old woman, but it’s the same commitment and program and rules and standards,” Madison said. “There’s a lot of pressure. I’m usually pretty tight. I try not to let the girls realize that. I try to take that weight for them. But yeah, you want to do well. You want to carry it on.”
There aren’t many programs in any WPIAL sport with as much tradition, pedigree and success as the Spartans have in softball. One of only three teams to win five consecutive WPIAL championships, they rank fourth all time with seven WPIAL titles and own a record of 4-0 in PIAA championships, including a streak of three state titles in a row from 2016-18.
Still, after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 season and early exits in the WPIAL quarterfinals and semifinals in 2021 and 2022, it has now been four years since they last played for a WPIAL title — an eternity in Hempfield circles.
It’s still early and there are plenty of teams in Class 6A stocked with talent, but there might not be a better lineup from No. 1 to No. 9 than the one at Madison’s disposal. And with an emerging star in the circle in sophomore pitcher Riley Miller, there’s reason to believe the Spartans’ four-year championship drought might not last much longer.
“We’ve got some big-time players on our team and a lot of leaders,” Madison said. “These are intelligent young ladies, and they are perfectionists. They want success.”
After returning from a broken leg suffered in last year’s WPIAL Class 6A quarterfinal win against Norwin, Miller has been nothing short of spectacular as a sophomore. Through six games in 2023, she boasts a 5-1 record with an 0.26 ERA and 48 strikeouts to only 2 walks in 35 innings pitched. Not only that, she is also the team’s leading hitter with a .412 average and a pair of home runs, and she drove in both of the Spartans’ runs in a 2-0 win against Canon-McMillan on Monday.
“I kind of used my injury as motivation, because I was just itching to get back. I just wanted to get back into it and be better than I was,” Miller said. “I think [Madison] is a great coach. She knows what’s going on all the time. She’s been there before. She knows what it’s like.”
Hempfield leads off with the Howard sisters, freshman Lauren and junior Maggie, at the top of the lineup. Lauren is a speedy shortstop who is already drawing rave reviews for her play in only six games at the varsity level, and Maggie is a Georgetown recruit with a refined all-around game in right field. Both sisters are hitting .368 so far this year.
Batting third is 6-1 junior Peyton Heisler, a Penn recruit who covers a ton of ground in center field for the Spartans, and designated player Hannah Uhrinek bats cleanup. Heisler is tied with Miller for the team lead with a .412 batting average through six games.
“She was just really receptive of any ideas we had of how we could better the team. Not that coach Kalp didn’t do that, but he kind of just had his own ways, and they worked,” Heisler said. “Basically everything is the same other than [Madison] as a person. I like that. I like the way coach Kalp was very down to the minute in our practices. Our practices still now are very, very organized.
“I feel like if another high school came and watched one of our practices, they would honestly be scared before they played us.”
Scrolling through the rest of the lineup, it’s hard to find many holes or weaknesses as you get to the back end. Sophomore catcher Allie Cervola and freshman left fielder Claire Mitchell are already providing some added pop toward the bottom of the order, and second baseman Sarah Podkul is known as an elite bunter and base-stealing threat. Third baseman Mia Bandieramonte also provides vital leadership as the team’s only senior starter.
“Sarah Podkul puts down bunts like crazy,” Heisler said. “I feel like we have a couple good players in the meat of our lineup, and we have a couple who are just able to put the ball in play and get some runs in when we need it.”
Knowing her team will need to be battle-tested in order to dethrone reigning champ Seneca Valley and avenge last year’s WPIAL semifinal defeat, Madison scheduled a who’s-who of high-caliber opponents for Hempfield’s non-section slate. And other than a rain-shortened 1-0 loss at North Allegheny that came with a bit of controversy as umpires called the tightly contested game in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Spartans have been virtually flawless.
Hempfield’s season started with back-to-back wins against a pair of foes with two of the most dangerous lineups in the area — first, a 6-3 win against defending WPIAL Class 5A champion Armstrong, then an 8-0 victory against Franklin Regional. After the loss at North Allegheny, the Spartans have since won three games in a row against Mt. Lebanon, Penn-Trafford and Canon-McMillan by a combined score of 21-2.
And with a high-profile showdown against Seneca Valley looming next Wednesday, Hempfield will have a chance to reassert itself at the top of the pecking order in Class 6A with a win against the Raiders. Madison isn’t focusing on that one yet, though. After all, the one-game-at-a-time approach has served her and her players well to this point.
Besides, she knows Kalp wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I try not to make the highs too high and the lows too low,” Madison said. “Everybody kind of knows what it means to put on a Hempfield uniform. … Just wearing a Hempfield softball uniform is pressure. In my opinion, it’s like a dynasty. It’s special.”