With so many great candidates to choose from, selecting a softball Coach of the Year in Western Pennsylvania tends to be an extremely difficult decision to make.

This year, though, Thomas Jefferson’s Heidi Karcher made it a no-brainer.

In her 12th year at the helm, Karcher took the Jaguars where no team in school history had gone before — back to her old stomping grounds at Penn State’s Beard Field. After finishing just 9-7 overall during the regular season and receiving a No. 10 seed for the WPIAL Class 5A tournament, Karcher engineered one of the most improbable postseason runs in WPIAL history, culminating in a dramatic 2-1 walk-off win against District 2 champion Pittston in extra innings to capture the program’s first state title.

But while Thomas Jefferson’s state championship win served as the perfect capstone for a remarkable season, it was the Jaguars’ journey to get there that made this team truly special.

Thomas Jefferson coach Heidi Karcher watches her team play against Pittston in the PIAA Class 5A championship on Thursday, June 13, 2024, at Penn State’s Beard Field. Thomas Jefferson won in extra innings, 2-1, to capture its first state title. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After coughing up a late lead against top-seeded Armstrong in the WPIAL championship game, Thomas Jefferson packed its bags and hit the road for the PIAA tournament — starting with a 500-mile round-trip journey to Solanco, where the Jaguars overpowered the District 3 runners-up for a 17-4 first-round victory. Thomas Jefferson then traveled about 315 miles round-trip to Norlo Park Complex in Chambersburg, where the Jaguars emerged victorious against District 1 runner-up West Chester East, 3-1.

Finally, Thomas Jefferson made the trip out to Mount Aloysius College — only about 185 miles round-trip this time — for a PIAA semifinal showdown with District 6 champion Central Mountain. The Jaguars promptly dug themselves into a 6-0 hole, with some parents in the crowd starting to search for silver linings in what had been a great season to that point. But the “Road Warriors” simply refused to throw in the towel, battling all the way back for a miraculous 9-8 victory to become the first girls team in any sport in school history to advance to a PIAA championship game.

The rest, of course, is history.

For guiding the Jaguars to their first state title in unthinkable fashion, Karcher is the 2024 Pittsburgh Union Progress softball Coach of the Year. All coaches in the WPIAL and City League were considered for the award, which was voted on by the PUP sports staff.

The PUP caught up with Karcher to reflect on Thomas Jefferson’s marathon run through the state playoffs, the Jaguars’ increasingly bright future and the memories of former coach John “Hoppy” Mitruski that helped inspire her team’s unforgettable postseason journey.

Thomas Jefferson coach Heidi Karcher shouts to her team as they play against Armstrong in the WPIAL Class 5A championship on Thursday, May 30, 2024, at PennWest California’s Lilley Field. Karcher led the Jaguars from a No. 10 seed in the WPIAL Class 5A tournament to the WPIAL championship game and the school’s first PIAA title. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Q: Has the feeling sunk in yet of what you and this team just accomplished?

A: I think it has. I just keep rewatching that last play of the game and stuff like that. It’s finally sinking in. Because the ring companies are contacting me now to make state championship rings.

Q: Did you tell Cherp [Thomas Jefferson AD and football coach Bill Cherpak] that TJ is a softball school now?

A: [Laughs] No, I did not say that to him. He was very excited. A lot of people think that he’s only about football, but he’s not. If you have a team that works hard, he gives you the same amount of time and dedication that he gives to his own boys on the football team. I always support him with that, because he’s done so much for the girls.

Q: What was that last bus ride like on the way home?

A: It was actually pretty calm. I think everybody was just emotionally drained. It wasn’t boisterous. A lot of kids were just coming up to us and sitting down and talking. It wasn’t crazy. There was more hype after the game when we were taking pictures and everything. I think we were all just looking at pictures and so many people were calling and texting them congratulations.

Q: What did you do to celebrate after the state championship game?

A: One of the boosters had reservations — I want to say it was at Brothers Pizza & Pasta down in State College. We went there after the game and had some dinner and appetizers and stuff, then we boarded the bus and went back home. The local firetrucks and police were escorting us back to the high school with lights. No sirens, though, because it was almost 1 a.m.

Q: Your team truly lived up to the “Road Warriors” nickname all throughout the state playoffs. Did you ever get them to listen to “The Warrior” by Scandal as your pump-up song?

A: We actually played that at our last practice. [Senior first baseman] Taylor Karpac is in charge of the music, if you can believe that. But I sent that song to the coaches in our group chat, and we ended up playing it over the loudspeaker during batting practice.

Q: What is it about you and your teams that always seem to thrive as the underdog?

A: I think it’s the passion that our coaching staff brings to the table. Because you could be a No. 10 seed or a No. 13 seed and not have a really passionate staff. We’re pretty loud. We’re very passionate women in that dugout. Each of us has a distinct role. I think we really hype the girls up, build their confidence and let them know they can accomplish anything. I think it also speaks volumes that we have a coaching staff of all former collegiate athletes, too. That’s key. The mental aspect of the game plays a huge part.

Q: What was it like having your daughter, Haleigh, on your staff to take part in this journey with you?

A: This is her first season. I really think her pitch calling and just having the knowledge as a catcher — she can see batters’ swings, where [freshman pitcher Aubrey Shaffer] needs to pitch the ball, in or out, high or low. She can recognize if there are any flaws in anybody’s swing, where to pitch the ball. I’m not able to do that. That’s not my forte. That was huge.

Q: Even though you had seven losses in the regular season, six of them were by two runs or less. Do you think some of those close losses against teams like Elizabeth Forward paid dividends in the postseason?

A: Let me tell you what our loss to EF taught me. Because we were tied, 1-1. And I want to say Shelby [Telegdy] was up. I don’t know if they had a runner on second and third or just third. I didn’t walk her. It was a non-section game at that point, so I figured we would roll the dice, and she made us pay.

I don’t know who I was talking to, and they said, “Heidi, why didn’t you walk her?” And I said, “Well, I wasn’t really thinking of it.” That resonated with me in the state championship game. Pittston had runners on second and third [with star senior Gianna Adams up to bat], and I said, “I’m walking her. This is not going to happen again to me.”

Q: With a freshman pitcher like Aubrey Shaffer and a handful of talented players returning, do you feel like this team could be even better next year?

A: Quite possibly. From what I hear, we have a lot of talent in the middle school program we can work with. We have a lot of talented girls who were on the bench on our team, who didn’t get a lot of playing time. I talk to those girls, and I said, “This is what you need to be working toward. You might not be playing right now, but you’re hustling, you’re showing effort and showing dedication, so that next year you can come in and take whoever’s spot is graduating or potentially move a starter from their position.”

Q: Other than the state championship, what is your favorite memory from this season?

A: That’s a tough one. I’m trying to think. I don’t even know if I can pick a favorite. Probably one of the most heartfelt memories that we started the season off with — our first game was supposed to be on [former coach John “Hoppy” Mitruski]’s birthday, but it was canceled because of the weather. So instead, we started the season off eating cupcakes with bunny ears, because we started the season off right around Easter. There’s a picture of us all holding the cupcakes with our “Hoppy” ears, and I think that kind of laid the foundation for this team.

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.