In 20 years at the helm at West Allegheny, Mindi McFate has developed a well-earned reputation as one of the most revered softball coaches in the area.
Known for constantly keeping the Indians in title contention while always managing to get the most out of her players, McFate has coached West Allegheny to 269 wins and three WPIAL titles over the past two decades, with four WPIAL championship appearances and one trip to the state title game. Despite going her entire career without coaching a true “ace” pitcher and only a handful of star sluggers, McFate has built the Indians’ program into a perennial powerhouse both feared and respected by opponents across Class 5A.
After making four consecutive WPIAL championship appearances from 2016-19 — including winning three in a row from 2017-19 — the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to West Allegheny’s momentum with the shutdown of the 2020 season. The Indians still had respectable seasons in 2021 and 2022, going 13-3 and 12-4 during the past two regular seasons with a 10-2 mark in section play on both occasions. But their past two seasons both came to an unceremonious end via first-round playoff exits at the hands of Franklin Regional and Latrobe, illustrating the brutal and unforgiving nature of the WPIAL Class 5A tournament.
“Even that 2019 win was so unexpected. Still to this day, on paper, I don’t know how we did that,” McFate said. “I tell them, ‘We won the WPIAL as a No. 10 seed, guys. The Pirates are winning right now. Anything in sports is possible.’”
With four years having passed since their last WPIAL title, many had written the Indians off as one of the top title contenders in the loaded Class 5A gauntlet going into the 2023 season. After 16 wins in 17 games, though — all while rarely being challenged and getting key contributions from all over the lineup — it could soon be time to restore West Allegheny (16-1, 9-0) to its former place as one of the WPIAL’s premier programs.
“I’ve always had that underdog mentality,” McFate said. “I remember in 2018, we had just won it, and we were No. 1 all the time, and it wasn’t something I was used to. Like, people were coming for us. We lost in the semifinals, I think, six times before we ever made it to the WPIAL championship.
“I always felt like it was that holy grail out there that you’re trying to get to. And we got there, and we got to stay on top for a few years, but the fight back to the top is harder than you remember. This is the grind.”
Not only are the Indians winning, but also they are doing so in convincing fashion while outscoring foes by a combined score of 195-60 over the course of the season — including 66-12 over the past five games. They also started the season with a trip to the Ripken Experience tournament in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and came home unscathed after six wins in six games by a combined score of 58-10.
Yes, West Allegheny is still being tested against quality foes while proving it can win close games, too — as proven by a 7-6 win against Miami East, Ohio, on April 1, as well as a season-opening 9-8 win at Class 6A foe Mt. Lebanon on March 22. But with the way the Indians are playing, it’s almost becoming a question of “when” the mercy rule is going to come into effect, rather than “if.”
“When a team doesn’t have a break in the lineup, it’s a lot harder to beat them,” McFate said. “We tell kids all the time, the most important spot in the lineup is the one you’re in.”
With only one all-section player returning from 2022, few would have expected such an offensive explosion coming from the Indians this spring. But with a budding star in sophomore second baseman Aubrey Police and several other players making a name for themselves, it’s no wonder this team has already locked up the Class 5A Section 3 title outright while staring down a likely top-four seed for the WPIAL playoffs.
It all starts with Police, the leadoff hitter and base-stealing extraordinaire who boasts a .525 batting average with 3 home runs, 21 RBIs, 31 runs scored and 18 stolen bases through 17 games. She earned all-section honors as a freshman while displaying a versatile all-around game, but Police has clearly taken things to another level this season.
Along with Police, third baseman Ava Henke is enjoying a stellar sophomore season of her own, also batting .525 with 4 homers, 30 RBIs and 24 runs scored. Together, the pair combines to form one of the most potent one-two punch of second-year infielders you can find.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, just coming in as a freshman [last year] and starting. But as the season went on, I was able to adjust a little bit and get more comfortable,” Police said. “It’s really cool [playing for McFate], because she’s been there before. She knows how you’re feeling. … She can be tough sometimes, but it’s a lot of fun being around her. Practice is always fun. Even games.”
Don’t think it’s only a youth movement, though. Senior first baseman Emily Nolan and senior center fielder A.J. Arnal provide a pair of big bats in the heart of West Allegheny’s order, with Nolan batting .481 with 21 RBIs and 21 runs scored along with 11 walks and a .609 on-base percentage. Arnal has been equally patient while displaying plenty of pop at the plate, sporting a .449 batting average with 21 RBIs, 18 runs scored, 10 walks and a .556 on-base percentage.
“Every year that we’ve had any amount of success, it’s always been pretty much a team effort,” McFate said. “We haven’t had to rely on just one kid to have a big day. … We really have used kind of the entire lineup this year to produce runs and make things happen.”
In the circle, junior Elly Vicari-Baker has a 3.31 ERA with 58 strikeouts to 13 walks in 67 2/3 innings, all while pitching to her twin sister, catcher Addy Vicari-Baker. Arnal has also filled in with 32 1/3 innings pitched, holding a 3.25 ERA with 30 strikeouts to only three walks.
Altogether, the Indians appear to have everything it takes to make a return trip to the WPIAL finals for the first time since 2019 — but first, they’ll need to get over that first-round hump that has plagued them ever since.
“It’s hard, because the kids are still winning,” McFate said. “It’s almost like that monkey on your back now. We have to get past that first round of the playoffs and get a victory, just to allow the kids to have some confidence. We don’t want the same thing to happen again.
“It is hard. I think some people forget how hard it is to win a championship. Because once the playoffs start, you can’t have a bad day.”