Pack your bags, the Neshannock High softball team is heading for the state championship — again.
The Lady Lancers clinched their second championship game appearance in as many seasons, getting plays when they needed them in a PIAA Class A semifinal-round triumph over Southern Huntingdon, 4-1.
As the ball slapped into the glove of first basemen Alexandra Fischer to record the last out of the game, a sense of relief was apparent throughout the Neshannock squad.
“It feels great,” Lady Lancers coach Tracy Kimmel said. “We’ve been looking for this game and a chance to go back there. Boy, this is what we’re looking for. This is what we were looking to do from the beginning of the year, even since last year. Our bar has been raised pretty high at Neshannock. I’m glad we got back there, but there has been a lot of pressures on these kids to get back there. They’ve handled it well, and it shows.”
The Lady Lancers (21-2) will battle Williams Valley (22-4) on Friday at 3 p.m. for the crown at Nittany Lion Softball Park at Penn State University.
Expectations and the pressure of being a defending state champion have followed the team all season. Last year in Class AA, Neshannock claimed its first state crown with a 4-3 decision over Warrior Run. Eight of the nine starters returned from that squad, hoping to discover that a repeat is all the more sweeter.
“It’s so exciting after all that pressure the entire year because everyone expected us to be back. It’s good to actually be back and not disappoint anyone,” starting right fielder Katie Burrelli said. “As a team, we handle it pretty well. With the pressure that everyone else puts on us, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves as individuals.”
A second consecutive title shot may have not been possible without Burrelli’s contributions at the plate. She was 2 for 4 with a double and two RBIs, including plating the first run of the game.
Burrelli’s big day may have never happened if not for quick thinking by officials. The game, originally scheduled to be played at Brockway High School, was moved early yesterday morning to Harry Noerr Field in Punxsutawney after rain made for murky field conditions at Brockway.
After the teams went scoreless through the first two innings, Neshannock had action on the bases in the top of the third. A bit of two out magic was in store, as Rayanna Furst and Jamie Graziani led off the inning and accounted for the first two outs. Marissa DeMatteo reached on an error and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Lady Rockets pitcher Julisa Zinobile. Madison Altmyer drew a walk to put two runners on for Burrelli.
She would deliver, lining a single that would plate DeMatteo and give the Lady Lancers a lead they would never relinquish.
Pitching and defense stifled Southern Huntingdon (20-5) through the first five innings, as hurler Madison Shaffer allowed just two baserunners, both singles, during that span. She pitched three 1-2-3 innings in a row from the second through fourth. Shaffer allowed three hits in the complete-game victory, surrendering one earned run, walking one and striking out nine.
Shaffer’s teammates quickly made it clear they had her back in the field, as center fielder Furst made an impressive diving catch in the outfield against the Southern Huntingdon’s first batter of the game, catcher McKenna Garlock. Furst would later snag a potential game-tying home run with a catch at the wall in the sixth.
“All the way around, outfield, infield and (Marissa) Kirkwood catching back there, we’re pretty strong,” Furst said. “It’s very rare we make an error, but when we do, we shake it off and let it go.”
Zinobile did her best to keep pace with Shaffer in the pitching circle, flustering Neshannock batters with her pitching style.
“Usually, you either have fast pitchers or you have junk pitchers. This girl was interesting because she didn’t have very much speed, but none of our balls were coming off the bat right,” Burrelli said. “She was giving us a lot of the junk. That’s why some of our balls were popping off into easy grounders. To get a good hit off the girl was an accomplishment, just to see that ball right.”
The Lady Lancers added a run in the top of the sixth when Kirkwood doubled in Fischer, who led the inning off with a walk. The hit would be the eventual game winner. Shaffer attempted to score on the play but was thrown out at the plate, 7-5-2.
THE PRESSURE MOUNTS
Worry crept in for Neshannock in the bottom of the sixth. With two runners on, Kara Leonard delivered a double that cut the Lady Lancers lead to 2-1 and put runners at second and third with just one out. However, a running catch on a weakly hit ball to second basemen DeMatteo was caught. The Lady Rockets’ Kelsey Jenkins took off from third on the play, believing the ball wouldn’t be caught, and was doubled up at third, 4-2-5.
“I have total confidence in my defense. When it was 2-1, it was getting a little shaky there with the one runner on, but we knew Shaffer was going to get us out of there,” Furst said. “Or, if she didn’t, one of the girls was going to make a great play.”
As has been the case all season, when the Lady Lancers need a big play or big hit, they usually deliver. Shaffer and the defense maintained the lead in the sixth, and the offense would come alive to do its part in the seventh.
With one out, DeMatteo slapped her second hit of the day, a double, and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Altmyer followed by popping up to Zinobile.
Two-out magic entered the equation again, as Burrelli came through for a second time with a clutch run-scoring double.
“Coming off of a slow hitting game last time and going into this one, still kind of a slow hitting game, we were all just waiting for that big hit to come just to get something started,” she said. “I knew in my mind that last at-bat that something was going to happen. I just tried to play with the pitcher a little bit and make her get me a good one. It felt awesome coming off that bat.”
Neshannock also struggled on offense until the latter innings of its previous game, a 6-1 quarterfinal-round win over Claysburg-Kimmel.
After Fischer was intentionally walked, Shaffer smacked the third double of the inning, scoring Burrelli and extending the Lady Lancers’ advantage to 4-1.
“You’re not going to hit the ball every day. It’s just not going to happen. We got a lot of balls up in the air and didn’t really hit them hard, but then we had some hard hit balls that we hit right at them that could have done some damage,” Kimmel said. “I like the way, when they got their one run, we came back and scored a couple. That’s what you have to do. That’s what good teams do.”
The insurance was all Shaffer would need, as she struck out the first two batters in the bottom of the seventh and forced a grounder to Graziani who threw the ball to Fischer for the last out of the contest.
Oh yeah, and a special trip to Penn State.
Pack your bags, the Neshannock High softball team is heading for the state championship — again.
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