An 11-3 loss to Penn-Trafford on April 5, sandwiched between a pair of 6-1 victories against Deer Lakes and Latrobe, left many WPIAL softball fans wondering the same thing.

What happened to those high-powered Armstrong River Hawks?

Sure, those are three top-notch opponents with quality pitching, but fans are used to seeing Armstrong light up scoreboards across the region day in and day out. Maybe we were all a bit spoiled by the River Hawks’ propensity for eye-popping, jaw-dropping dingers over the past few years, but we have to remember that Armstrong graduated a handful of impact players from last year’s team, and this year’s team probably shouldn’t be held to the same standard.

Then again, after outscoring their past four victims by a combined score of 59-4, maybe these are the same old River Hawks after all.

“After that first loss, the girls really stepped it up and realized that it’s not easy,” said Armstrong coach Keith Shaffer, now in his second year at the helm and ninth season overall with the program. “Especially whenever you’re expected to be one of the top teams, everybody is kind of gunning for you. The girls realized with that first loss, it’s a battle every night. Everybody is giving you their best shot.

“It was one of those early-season losses that kind of wakes you up a little bit. They took it to heart, and they’ve been working really hard ever since.”

Gone are several stalwarts from the River Hawks teams that reached three consecutive WPIAL Class 5A championship games from 2021-23, including Bella Atherton, Jenna Clontz, Emma Smerick and Cameryn Sprankle. But this is still a lineup loaded with talent, headlined by two of the top seniors in the area in leadoff batter Emma Paul and cleanup hitter Jessie Pugh.

Armstrong’s Emma Paul is a Fairmont State recruit and two-time all-state selection with an elite combination of speed and power. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Paul finds herself on the short list of the very best multi-sport athletes in the area, having earned PUP First-Team All-Star honors after averaging 22.2 points per game while leading Armstrong to its first WPIAL championship appearance in basketball. Her exploits on the hardwood are well-documented, but the softball diamond is where the speedy shortstop shines brightest.

Through the first eight games in 2024, Paul is batting .478 with three home runs and eight stolen bases, and her last homer marked No. 20 for her career. She also batted .478 last year while mashing 10 homers and scoring 43 runs, and the Fairmont State recruit is a two-time first-team all-state selection.

“We moved her to the leadoff spot. She just causes havoc on the bases when she gets on,” Shaffer said. “She is just a once-in-a-generation athlete for our school.”

As for Pugh, the powerful first baseman has the ability to change any game with one swing of the bat — just check her 30 career home runs for proof. And although she has only three homers so far this year, she is driving in runs at an unprecedented pace. Pugh put on perhaps her finest offensive display yet in a 24-0 rout against Kiski Area on Monday, when she finished 3 for 4 with two doubles, a homer and seven RBIs.

“She hit another moonshot [in a 16-1 win against Karns City on Tuesday],” Shaffer said. “She’s just amazing.”

Going into Wednesday’s game against Franklin Regional, she boasted a .652 batting average with 23 RBIs — then Pugh homered for the third consecutive game to propel Armstrong to a pivotal 4-3 win against the Panthers.

“She’s heating up,” Shaffer said.

No kidding.

Elsewhere, senior third baseman Shelby Cloak is another returning starter with plenty of big-game experience for the River Hawks (8-1, 4-1), and she is now stepping into the spotlight alongside Paul and Pugh. Providing another big bat in the middle of the order, Cloak is batting .400 with a pair of home runs on the year.

Junior second baseman Jordyn Klingensmith is the only other returning starter for Armstrong, which has an outfield full of fresh faces and a brand-new battery in senior pitcher Madison Baker and senior catcher Abby Bauer. Both Baker and Bauer have waited in the wings behind established starters the past three years as Sprankle and Atherton helped steer the River Hawks to three consecutive WPIAL championship games, and now both are proving to be more than ready for the occasion.

“[Baker and Sprankle] were on the same travel team for several years, and it was basically the same thing,” Shaffer said. “They shared duties on their travel team and did very well there. Cam was more of a bulldog that just went out there and battled game in and game out, and now Madison has taken over that role very well.”

Armstrong’s Madison Baker has stepped in seamlessly for Cameryn Sprankle as the go-to starting pitcher for the River Hawks in 2024. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After Armstrong fell behind against Trinity, 7-0, in the second inning of last year’s WPIAL Class 5A title game, Baker entered the game for Sprankle and limited the Hillers to four runs over the final five innings. Although the River Hawks’ furious rally fell just short in an eventual 11-7 defeat, Baker gave them a chance to come back while showing tremendous poise in the face of adversity.

With Baker allowing one run or fewer seven times in nine outings and the offense back to scoring in bunches, Armstrong is once again looking like a leading title contender in Class 5A. But first, the River Hawks are trying to navigate the gauntlet that is Class 5A Section 2, where Penn-Trafford, Latrobe and Franklin Regional each figure to be in the mix for the section crown when it’s all said and done.

“The girls that are coming back that were part of those three championship runs, they want to finish out strong,” Shaffer said. “They know that the team is capable, and that’s their goal. They want to get back to those championship games and hopefully bring us another WPIAL title.”

Although Shaffer is making sure his players remain focused on one game at a time, there’s no doubt they are eagerly anticipating Friday’s rematch against the Warriors. The winner will find themselves in pole position in the race for the section title, while the loser will fall back to the middle of the pack.

Needless to say, when it comes to mid-April regular-season contests, they simply don’t get much bigger than this.

“We’re trying to focus game to game,” Shaffer said. “We need to give our best effort in every one of them.”

Chartiers-Houston, Carmichaels deadlocked after 13 innings

Chartiers-Houston and Carmichaels appear to be locked in a two-way heat for the Class 1A Section 2 crown, and if that wasn’t clear before Tuesday’s yet-to-be-completed matchup, it certainly is now.

In the first of two scheduled meetings between the section rivals, the Buccaneers and Mighty Mikes remain all knotted up, 5-5, after 13 innings of action at Chartiers-Houston. The game was postponed due to darkness and will be completed at a later date, while the teams will meet again for a separate matchup at Carmichaels on Friday. Both teams had yet to allow a run in section play entering Tuesday’s contest, with the Buccaneers (6-1, 4-0) outscoring opponents by a combined score of 50-0 through four games, and the Mighty Mikes (6-1, 3-0) outscoring their first three section foes by a combined score of 34-0.

Coming off an all-section selection as a sophomore, ace pitcher Meadow Ferri is bringing plenty of heat for the Buccaneers (6-1, 4-0) this spring. In a 6-0 win against Jefferson-Morgan on Monday, Ferri fanned 21 batters while allowing only one hit in another superb performance for the all-section flamethrower. For the season, Ferri is 6-1 with an 0.93 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 37⅔ innings pitched, and she is batting .500 with a home run, three doubles and 10 RBIs.

After helping lead Carmichaels to the WPIAL Class 1A championship game as a freshman, star shortstop Carys McConnell is off to another hot start for the Mighty Mikes. Through seven games, McConnell is batting .375 with four doubles, a home run and a team-leading 10 RBIs, while fellow sophomore standout Bailey Barnyak is batting .615 with eight RBIs. In the circle, Barnyak is 6-0 with an 0.39 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and 77 strikeouts to in 35 2/3 innings of work.

Carmichaels’ Bailey Barnyak, pictured during the 2023 WPIAL Class 1A championship against Union, is batting .615 with eight RBIs and owns a record of 6-0 with an 0.39 ERA. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Jeannette’s Stein enjoying stellar sophomore season

After making a name for herself as one of the stingiest pitchers in Class 1A as a freshman, Jeannette’s Grace Stein appears to be elevating her game while making life even harder for opposing batters this spring.

Last year, Stein finished 12-5 with a 1.50 ERA and 136 strikeouts while twirling five no-hitters for the Jayhawks. As a sophomore, Stein is 4-0 so far with an 0.23 ERA, and she has racked up 74 strikeouts in only 30 innings without issuing a single walk. Stein is also batting .429 with a home run, three RBIs and six runs scored.

In a 7-0 win against Bishop Canevin on Monday, Stein punched out 17 batters in a complete-game shutout. Jeannette has outscored its foes by a combined score of 34-2 through its first four games while keeping pace with Frazier for the top spot in Class 1A Section 3.

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

Steve Rotstein

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