Nazareth Academy's Erica Cipolloni decided in the off-season that she would surprise softball coach Bob Keating.

She knew that the Pandas, Athletic Association of Catholic Academies champions for the previous three years and reigning PIAA District 1 Class AAA champs, would be without pitching ace Amanda Fernandez this season. So she signed up for pitching lessons.

Cipolloni had done some limited pitching early in her softball career, but she made her name as a power-hitting second baseman.

With her father's support, she went to Stacy Jackson of New Jersey to take lessons.

"I had pitched when I was 12, but when I got to eighth grade, I decided I wanted to be a position player," Cipolloni said. "I had speed as a pitcher, but everybody can hit speed. What you need is movement on the ball."

She apparently has learned that from Jackson. With a big boost from Cipolloni's pitching and hitting, the Pandas are the only unbeaten team (19-0) in The Inquirer's top 10. They won their fourth straight Catholic Academies title Friday, and are the top seed in the district playoffs, which open this week.

"She's always thrown hard," Keating said of the Virginia-bound senior. "She came to me after last season and said that if I was short of pitchers she would help out."

She has helped out to the tune of a 15-0 record, and has struck out 202 in 90 innings. She has nine shutouts, five no-hitters and one perfect game this season. Cipolloni has walked 23 and allowed just 14 hits. Her ERA is 0.16.

Cipolloni, who lives in the Torresdale section of Philadelphia, also has produced at the plate. Through the 19 games, she is batting .501 with 20 RBIs. Her six homers put her among the area's leaders. She also has hit five doubles and four triples, and stolen 17 bases.

"You have to realize that she bats leadoff for us," Keating pointed out. "That makes her RBI numbers even more impressive."

Although Cipolloni committed to Virginia as a second baseman, Cavaliers coach Eileen Schmidt indicated she would give Cipolloni a shot on the mound after seeing her pitch one of the Pandas' games this season.

"She has such natural athletic ability," said Jackson, the pitching coach.

"When she first came to me, she was a bit rusty because she hadn't pitched in a while," added Jackson, a former pitcher for Hofstra. "Besides having natural athletic ability, she listens to everything you say."

The selection committee for the U.S. Junior Olympics team also was impressed with Cipolloni. She is one of 45 players from across the country invited to tryouts in late June.

Oddly enough, Cipolloni does not throw a fastball, but she can get her other pitches into the 60-m.p.h. range.

"Everybody can hit a fastball. It's the movement on the ball that counts," Cipolloni reiterated.

Contact staff writer Don Beideman at 267-815-0733 or dbeideman@phillynews.com.