If you happen to swing by Murrysville this spring and hear a lot of loud clanging and banging sounds, there’s no need to panic — it’s probably just the Franklin Regional softball team taking some batting practice or playing a game nearby.

With a supercharged lineup few teams in the WPIAL could match, the Panthers slugged their way to a 13-3 start through their first 16 games in 2022. They mashed 29 home runs overall, but Franklin Regional fizzled out after losing starting pitcher Carli Ramchandran to a broken wrist, ending the season on a four-game losing streak with a disappointing first-round playoff exit.

Now, with Ramchandran healthy again and nearly every key contributor back for the 2023 season, it appears the power-hitting Panthers (4-2, 2-0) might finally be ready to contend for a WPIAL crown in the shark-infested waters of Class 5A.

“We’re in a section I think is extremely hard. It might be one of the best in the WPIAL, with Armstrong, Latrobe, P-T, us and also Kiski,” Franklin Regional coach Jim Armstrong said. “We’re not all about long balls. We hit them, but we run the bases. … Carli pitched a gem [on Monday]. She almost had a no-hitter.”

They might not be a one-dimensional unit, but make no mistake about it — home-run hitting is still the Panthers’ bread and butter. All you need to do is take one glance at their stat sheet for proof — or just stop by one of their practices or games to see for yourself.

Second baseman Toryn Fulton and catcher Ciara Camacho are two of the most talented sophomores in the area, and both turned heads a year ago while enjoying stellar freshman seasons. Although Camacho is just now rounding into form after battling some nagging injuries to start the season, Fulton is already putting up some eye-popping numbers while on pace to blow past her 2022 totals.

In a mind-boggling 28-19 win March 27 at Plum, Fulton went 6 for 6 with 4 home runs, 2 doubles, 9 RBIs and 7 runs scored. Last year, she hit .414 with 7 homers, 30 RBIs and 25 runs scored in her varsity debut. In only six games played as a sophomore, Fulton is batting .591 and slugging 1.636 with 6 home runs, 18 RBIs and 13 runs scored.

“[Fulton] hits rockets. I don’t think any of hers were cheap at all,” Armstrong said. “She’s a wonderful kid. Very laid-back. Nothing really bothers her.”

First baseman Madison Nguyen and center fielder Sydney Jackson are two of the team’s trusted senior leaders, and they’re also two of the most feared hitters in the WPIAL. After hitting .536 and slugging 1.054 with 8 home runs, 36 RBIs and 25 runs scored in 2022, Nguyen is batting .500 with a home run and six RBIs through six games. Meanwhile, the blazing-fast Jackson is hitting .333 with a home run and 4 RBIs after putting up 4 triples and 4 homers to go with 20 RBIs and 31 runs scored a year ago. Senior third baseman Lexie Patberg is also off to a strong start, batting .400 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

“Toryn is going to hit them. Madison is going to hit them. Ciara is going to hit them. Sydney is going to hit them,” Armstrong said. “It’s kind of fun, but I also wish we could bunt. We can’t bunt worth a crap, and it ticks me off. I think half the time they don’t bunt well on purpose so I don’t make them bunt.

“We know we’re not always going to hit home runs, and we have to find other ways to win.”

After starting the season in Florida with a 19-1 win against McDonnell Central (Wis.), the Panthers returned home and dropped an 8-0 defeat against Class 6A contender Hempfield and ace pitcher Riley Miller. They bounced back with the aforementioned 28-19 win in extra innings against Plum, then fell to another title contender in a 6-3 loss against Shaler.

Since then, Ramchandran tossed a 6-0 shutout Monday at Kiski Area, then Franklin Regional followed that up with a 6-5 victory on a walk-off hit by freshman Adrianna Martz against Penn-Trafford on Wednesday. Now riding a three-game winning streak into a pair of marquee matchups against section foes Latrobe and Armstrong next week, the Panthers won’t have to wait much longer in order to prove they belong among the top teams in Class 5A.

“The girls are like, ‘Do we have to practice on Monday and Tuesday? And I’m like, ‘Do you understand who we’re playing on Wednesday? Do you understand who we’re playing on Friday?’” Armstrong said. “It should be a good time. It’s fun playing good competition. You never shy away from it.”

Shutouts in Southmoreland

After a 17-6 non-section loss against Belle Vernon to open the season, Southmoreland coach Todd Bunner certainly didn’t panic. After all, he said he treated the game more like a preseason scrimmage while trying out several different pitchers to see what works best.

Still, even Bunner didn’t necessarily expect the Scotties (3-1, 2-0) to bounce back as quickly and impressively as they have since the defeat.

Starting with a 12-0 win against Greensburg Salem on March 27, Southmoreland junior Maddie Brown has blanked three consecutive opponents while dueling with some of the top pitchers in Class 3A. Brown helped the Scotties survive a career day from Ligonier Valley ace Cheyenne Piper on Monday in a 2-0 extra-innings win, keeping them in the game long enough for junior shortstop Amarah McCutcheon to belt a walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth.

“Against Piper, [McCutcheon] had three strikeouts in a row. Her fourth at-bat, she was down 0-2 and got the wrong pitch in the wrong place and sent it into center field, about 220 feet,” Bunner said. “Every swing, she’ll give you what she’s got.”

Piper struck out 20 batters and allowed only two hits in 8 2/3 innings of work for Ligonier Valley, but it was Brown who earned the win after pitching nine shutout innings with nine strikeouts and zero walks. She then followed with another complete-game shutout in a 2-0 win against Mount Pleasant on Wednesday, outshining Vikings starter Sophia Smithnosky while notching seven strikeouts to only one walk.

“She’s just controlling the games. I can’t say anything more than that,” Bunner said. “If you don’t have good pitching, it doesn’t matter if you score any runs or not. She just gets stronger as the game goes on.”

For the season, Brown is 3-1 with a 1.71 ERA and 0.98 WHIP while tallying 30 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings pitched. One of the top shortstops in the WPIAL, McCutcheon is batting .556 with a pair of home runs along with 9 RBIs, 4 stolen bases and a 1.056 slugging percentage.

“We’re behind [Brown] defensively, too,” Bunner said. “We made a lot of nice defensive plays [on Wednesday] — a nice throw out, some catches in the outfield. And we only made one error. When you’re only making one error, you can win with two runs.”

Seneca Valley stands alone in Class 6A

Speaking of shutouts, Seneca Valley’s sophomore sensation Lexie Hames knows a thing or two about those. After the Raiders (5-0, 4-0) opened the season with a 12-1 win against Plum, Hames has hurled four consecutive shutouts for the defending WPIAL champions, who now own sole possession of first place in the nine-team Class 6A Section 1 standings.

Hames was in peak form for Seneca Valley in a battle for first place on Wednesday night, striking out 17 and allowing only one hit and one walk in a complete-game shutout to lead the Raiders to a 2-0 win against visiting North Allegheny (7-2, 4-1). Seneca Valley struggled to get much going with the bats, but the Raiders received the only offense they needed on a two-run double by junior catcher Anna Kalkowski.

For the season, Hames is 5-0 with a microscopic 0.23 ERA and 72 strikeouts to 10 walks in 31 innings pitched. She’s also equally intimidating at the plate, as most teams refuse to give her any good pitches to swing at. Still, Hames is hitting .571 with a pair of home runs while drawing 10 walks through five games.

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.