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May 23, 2014

Photo Gallery, Story: Neshannock moves on to WPIAL title game

NEW CASTLE — The Neshannock High softball team is going back to the WPIAL championship game.

This time, the Lady Lancers used some good, old-fashioned drama to get there.

Madison Shaffer’s third-inning grand slam got Neshannock on the board and her pitching helped shut the door in an 11-0 WPIAL Class A semifinal-round win over Burgettstown at North Allegheny High School yesterday. The game was stopped after five innings because of the mercy rule.

It’s the second-straight berth in the district title tilt for the Lady Lancers and the third in the program’s 17-year history. Neshannock claimed the school’s lone state softball championship in 2012 after capturing a WPIAL consolation win to advance to the state playoffs.

“That’s what we like to hear. We like to hear that word ‘ship’. We like that,” said Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel said with a smile about going back to the championship game. “We still have a lot of core players from two years ago. They know what it takes.

“It’s tough. I’ve said that before. When you’ve been there before, there’s a lot of pressure on this team. We just have to see if we can handle it. For the most part, we’ve been handling it.”

Neshannock won the WPIAL Class A title last year, 10-4. The Lady Lancers’ other district championship appearance was a 10-0 loss to Sto-Rox in 2006 in Class AA.

Top-seeded Neshannock (15-2), which is ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class A by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will oppose South Side Beaver on Thursday at California University of Pennsylvania. The seventh-seeded Lady Rams (16-3) advanced with a 5-3 decision over Jefferson-Morgan. The game time will be announced.

Neshannock and South Side Beaver are Section 4 rivals. The Lady Lancers won both meetings, 14-8 and 10-3.

Fifth-seeded Burgettstown, which is ranked No. 3 in the WPIAL in Class A by the Post-Gazette, will take on Jefferson-Morgan in the consolation game Tuesday.

Shaffer, a junior, was coming off a perfect game Tuesday in a 7-0 win over Vincentian Academy in the quarterfinals. She was sharp again yesterday in the circle, working all five innings. Shaffer allowed two hits — a pair of singles by Emily Wilson — and a walk with five strikeouts.

“I thought I’ve been doing very well,” Shaffer said of her two postseason performances this season. “A lot of that goes to my catcher (Marissa Kirkwood). She calls the pitches, I just throw them.”

Kimmel was impressed with his pitcher’s performance.

“She looks like she’s in the groove right now,” Kimmel said. “That changeup is really working good right now. If she keeps that up, she’s going to be hard to handle.”

The teams were scoreless through two innings and Shaffer’s perfect innings streak in the playoffs was still active as well, extending to nine in a row.

Neshannock broke through in the third inning. The Lady Lancers loaded the bases with one out on a walk by Jenna DeLuca, a double by Marissa DeMatteo and a bunt single by Cassidy Burrelli. That brought up Shaffer with the bases full.

Shaffer belted a 2-2 pitch from Lady Blue Devils pitcher Kate Tarr deep over the fence in right field for a grand slam and a 4-0 Neshannock lead.

“You hit a ball like that, that ball was long gone,” Kimmel said. “That was a no-doubter. The thing of it is you get a team down with a grand slam like that, it’s pretty tough to come back from that.”

Shaffer’s previous at-bat, which came in the first inning, ended in a flyout to left. But during that at-bat, she socked a rocket deep into the woods but foul off Tarr.

“I was a little bit early,” Shaffer said. “I just tried to adjust. We noticed where she was throwing location-wise. We all adjusted.”

Burgettstown coach Mark Deer was impressed with Shaffer’s all-around performance.

“She’s the best pitcher we’ve faced all year; very dominant,” he said. “She had her pitches working and she kept us off balance all day.

“She’s a very good hitter, too. We were trying to pitch her down and in and then go away. The ball she hit out of the park was supposed to be outside. It was down and in. My catcher (Bryanne Lonich) said she hit a good pitch. When she hit it, I knew it was gone. Way gone.”

Madison Altmyer doubled with two outs in the third and Gina Zingaro reached on a bloop single, scoring Altmyer for a 5-0 lead.

Shaffer struck out Cheyenne Winters looking to open the third. But Emily Wilson ended her run of perfection in the playoffs when she delivered a clean single to center on a 1-2 pitch.

Shaffer got in trouble later in the inning when Cassie Carnes reached on a strikeout when Kirkwood didn’t catch Shaffer’s offering. Wilson went from second to third on the play, which would have been the third out. Caley Ritts walked to load the bases.

Shaffer, though, got Sami Scopel to pop up to Alexandra Fischer at first, stranding the bases loaded.

“I have complete confidence in my team,” Shaffer said. “They played very well behind me all game. I trust my defense.”

Said Kimmel about his team keeping its poise, “That’s happened to us before. I’ve told them before, whether a team gets a run or we get out of it not giving up a run, I’ll tell them ‘look at all that noise they made and they only got a run or they didn’t get any runs.’ It’s nothing we can’t handle.

Big trouble was lurking with Tarr on-deck when Shaffer escaped trouble. She came into the playoffs hitting well over .400 with three home runs. But she went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts against Shenango on Tuesday and was 0 for 2 yesterday with another strikeout to bring her average down around .390 according to Deer.

“That was very deflating,” Deer said of leaving the bases loaded. “I had my three-hitter at the plate and as a coach, that’s where you want to be.

“I was hoping she draws a walk or gets a hit. We could be one swing from tying the ballgame.”

Neshannock put the game away in the fourth. The Lady Lancers knocked out Tarr with three-straight hits to open the frame. Morgan Ellek moved in from second base to pitch and Neshannock hammered her as well. The Lady Lancers sent 10 batters to the plate, striking for six runs.

“That was big,” Kimmel said. “We were in pretty good shape then.”

Tarr tossed three-plus innings, giving up 10 hits and eight runs — all earned — with a walk and a strikeout.

Wilson added her second single with one out in the fifth. Shaffer, though, got Jordan Cullison to hit a bouncer to the shortstop Altmyer. Altmyer fielded the ball cleanly, stepped on second for the force and gunned the throw over to Fischer at first to complete the double play and send Neshannock to the championship game. The Neshannock players ran to the middle of the diamond to celebrate.

“This feels real good,” Shaffer said. “It’s what we’ve been working for all year. We’re really excited about it.

“It’s a little tough. There’s always pressure if you’re going to make it back or not. But our team works really hard.”

Neshannock’s win also locks up a spot in the state playoffs as well.

Burrelli and Altmyer paced the Lady Lancers’ 13-hit attack with three hits apiece. Shaffer contributed two hits and five RBIs, while DeMatteo added a pair of hits.

(To view a photo gallery, CLICK HERE.)

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