A milestone week continued for the Pitt-Johnstown athletic program with Tuesday’s addition of four NCAA Division II sports, including women’s softball, which announced its first recruit, Greater Johnstown High School graduate Amber Maurer.
“I think having Amber as the first softball recruit is so fitting,” said UPJ Athletic Director Pat Pecora. “Here we are with our first softball program and our first recruit is a Johnstown product. I’ve always believed in building your program with local athletes. That’s the heart and soul. I was so pumped when Amber decided to be our first softball player.”
Pitt-Johnstown officially became a member of the 18-school Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) on Monday. A day later, the program added softball, men’s cross country and men’s indoor and outdoor track for the 2013-14 academic year. UPJ will field 15 athletic teams.
New Lady Cats softball coach Sabrina Lane will build around Maurer, who had a .415 career batting average, including 84 hits, 22 doubles, three triples and a grand slam at Johnstown.
Lane formerly coached at NCAA Division I St. Francis University, where she was named Northeast Conference Coach of the Year in 2008. Lane also had experience coaching at Saginaw Valley State, as a graduate assistant at Edinboro University and with the professional softball team the Philadelphia Force. She is the director of softball at ERA Sports Inc., which has baseball and softball facilities in Richland Township and Altoona.
“It’s really exciting that UPJ is starting softball and joining the PSAC,” Lane said. “There are a lot of great things happening at the same time. It’s exciting to be on board. They’re adding softball and they’re behind it 100 percent.”
The Lady Cats expect to have a limited fall and spring varsity softball schedule consisting of the NCAA-required 24 games (12 doubleheaders) in
2013-14. The PSAC allows programs one year before beginning full participation in a sport, giving the team an opportunity to establish a foundation.
UPJ believes Maurer is the cornerstone of the softball program.
Her coach at Johnstown High agrees with that assessment.
“Amber is a great leader and she’s a great teammate,” Johnstown coach Randy Romesberg said. “You couldn’t ask for a better teammate. Academically she had great grades, top 10 in her class. Her skills on the field, she’s probably the best second baseman that I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching.
“Her nickname was ESPN because of the highlight plays she’d make at second base,” he added.
Lane happened to be in attendance at the District 6 Class AAA playoff between Johnstown and Hollidaysburg.
“That’s when I first saw her. You could tell she’s a leader on the field,” Lane said. “She hit a home run in that game, but beyond the home run you could tell she knew the game by the way she carried herself. Amber is a nice person to start the UPJ program around. I don’t think we can go wrong with her academically or athletically.”
Maurer’s sister Jill played basketball at UPJ.
The younger Maurer, the daughter of Herb Maurer and Sharon Carpenter, is eager to help the Cats build.
“It’s pretty awesome. It’s neat to start a new program,” said Amber Maurer, who intends to be part of the university’s nursing program. “I love softball. I think it’s an honor to be accepted and to be able to play the sport I love.
“The campus is bigger than I thought. It’s a nice campus. They offered me a scholarship. It’s a good opportunity.”
UPJ had a softball field constructed when the George Walter baseball field was built in the 1990s. The softball diamond mostly sat idle since then.
Pecora said the on-campus field will serve as a practice facility. He hopes UPJ will reach an agreement to play its home games at V.E. Erickson complex, which has emerged as an area softball facility that even has lights for night games.
“Right now we’re going to try to get our field ready for practice. We’re looking at possibly using V.E. Erickson for games,” Pecora said. “They have a real good set up with lights, parking and a concession stand. That’s where the local softball people are at right now. I thought we could connect to the community real well.”
Lane said UPJ’s tight-knit athletic department will help her build a program.
“The next steps are finding more people like Amber, the full package, the complete student-athlete,” Lane said. “We are establishing a program. We have to build it from the ground up. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
Current co-women’s track and field coaches Carl Keifer and Ernie Williams also will share the coaching duties with the new men’s track program in 2013-14. To meet NCAA standards, the indoor track and field program must compete in four contests with at least 10 participants, and the outdoor track team must compete in four contests with at least 14 participants.
Former UPJ national champion wrestler Shane Valko will coach the men’s and women’s cross country squads. In cross country a program must compete in five contests with at least five participants.
“Pitt-Johnstown across the board, the athletic department, is a very family-friendly organization,” Lane said. “Everybody across the athletic department has been great.
“We’re hitting the road,” she added. “The month of June I was out three of four weekends watching kids play. I also had a meeting with kids who already are on campus and might be interested in playing. We’ve been hitting it hard trying to find kids that are going to be a good fit for us and spreading the word that UPJ has a softball program now.”