New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
For the second straight season, a team entering the PIAA softball finals has ambitions of its first state title.
Last year, Neshannock High was looking for and found its first state gold, a 4-3 triumph over Warrior Run in Class AA.
Now, with this year’s title game just a day away, it’s the Lady Lancers who are hoping the trend of new champions doesn’t continue.
Enter Williams Valley — this year’s District 11 champions and opponent to Neshannock — in tomorrow’s PIAA Class A championship game, set for 3 p.m. at Penn State University’s Nittany Lion Softball Park.
Like the Lady Lancers last season, the Lady Vikings (22-4) are in pursuit of their first state title. In fact, this is the first state championship game appearance for Williams Valley in any sport in school history.
“I think what helped us last year, it wasn’t our first time playing there,” Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel said. “We had a little knowledge of what went on and how you were treated. We weren’t overwhelmed when we came down there for the championship game. The kids know the drill and what’s going on. Coming in for the first time, it might be a little bit overwhelming.”
The Lady Lancers, who dropped to Class A this season, played Philipsburg-Osceola at Penn State in the opening round of the Class AA state competition last year. The team ended up making three total trips to State College, including the championship game, after rain delayed the start of the Philipsburg-Osceola game, forcing Neshannock to drive back a day later.
“It’s an awesome place to play,” Kimmel added. “You really feel like you’re playing for something. Their complex and stadium is second to none.”
The cross-state Lady Vikings may not have the championship experience the Lady Lancers (21-2) have, but they have the drive and the talent to win the game.
“The whole town is excited for the opportunity to participate,” coach Lee Reiser, a 20-year veteran of the program, said. “The girls are looking forward to it and excited to be there. We’re a young team. We don’t have a lot of seniors. I feel the young players proved themselves throughout the season and have just gotten better and better.”
Sophomore Madison Shaffer (21-2) brings the heat for Neshannock. In her latest performance, she struck out nine in a complete-game victory over Southern Huntingdon, 4-1, in the PIAA semifinals on Monday. She retired 12 straight batters during a stretch from the first to the fifth innings.
Pitching isn’t her only strong suit, as Shaffer delivered at the plate with a run-scoring double in the seventh to provide the Lady Lancers with needed insurance.
Shaffer, a first-year pitcher who spent time at third base last year, has struck out 18 batters over the past two games. For the season, she needs five more strikeouts to reach 200.
“Last game, I thought it was her best game. She just didn’t throw a lot of wasted pitches. She was throwing harder, too. Last game, she only had one hard hit ball against her. There was another one there to left-center. Other than that, there wasn’t too much hit hard against her,” Kimmel said. “She’s just developing. That’s about all you can say. She has a pretty good base, and she’s only going to get better from here. She seems to be getting better each game, and that’s what you look for.”
In District 11, Reiser’s squad has seen its share of solid pitching, but he doesn’t know if he’s seen a pitcher the caliber of Shaffer.
“We’ve seen a few good pitchers throughout the league. We’ve seen some good pitching, but not a real fireballer,” he said, “I’m sure it’s going to be a challenge.”
It’s all about Cassidy Pinchorski (13-4) for the Lady Vikings. Williams Valley was a 2-1 winner in its semifinal-round triumph over Northeast Bradford. Pinchorski, who has started all her team’s playoff games this year, allowed just one run and worked out of two key jams with strikeouts. She also added a leadoff double in the fourth, which started a rally when the Lady Vikings were trailing 1-0.
“She mixes it up. She’s been very competitive. She lost a couple of tough games early in the season. Since then, she’s been on,” Reiser said. “She’s getting better and better with each game. We like to pitch two players or three players, and she didn’t pitch a heck of a lot during the season. Now, we’re riding her hot streak.”
Offense comes in waves for both squads. Neshannock has averaged nearly 12 runs a game this season, while Williams Valley tops out at about 14 runs. While different districts bring different competition, both coaches know it’s hard to argue with those numbers. That being said, they both expect the opposite — a close, low-scoring affair tomorrow.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Reiser said. “We’re going to need Cassidy shutting things down and some successful hitting. We don’t really feel like we can win a high-scoring game. We hope we get it to a 3-2 game.”
Kimmel likes the way his team has recently responded with crucial hits at crucial moments. He believes his team will need even more of those in clutch situations to catch a second state crown.
“If we come up with a little more timely hitting, that’ll be good, but right now we’re playing pretty good defense and getting good pitching. If we put some things together, we can be competitive,” Kimmel said. “I like the way we respond. When a team has scored on us, we come back with runs.
“There’s the added pressure of the playoffs, especially when you’re going for a state championship. There probably aren’t going to be a lot of runs scored. That will hold the score down.”
On offense, the Lady Vikings are led by Kylie Doyle, the team’s power threat and starting third basemen.
“She’s a good hitter. She was a .500 hitter for the regular season,” Reiser said. “She does hit for some power. Pinchorski and her are our leaders right now.”
The Lady Lancers won’t have to deal with star catcher Lacey Bixler in this one. Williams Valley’s starting catcher and only senior was lost for the season with a broken arm nearly a month ago. When the team’s top hitter went down, there was concern that nobody would step up to fill her void. Reiser quickly learned that wasn’t the case.
“They’ve all stepped in really great job. They’re doing a great job,” he said. “I’m really proud of what they’ve done so far. Our freshman center fielder, Rayanne Hawk, is getting better every game. She’s really fun to watch. She’s really just learning how to play the outfield.”
Alexandra Fischer is swinging a hot bat for a stacked Neshannock lineup that features five players batting more than .500. Fischer is swinging at a .542 clip, with six hits in her last nine at-bats. She trails only leadoff hitter Rayanna Furst (.576) in average.
“She’s hitting the ball well. She’s been hitting the ball on the button. You’d like to see that continued,” Kimmel said. “We need more than her. We need them all to come through, which is what we expect. We talk about the OTN (one through nine), and that’s it. That’s where it comes from.”
Furst provides versatility at the top of the order with her speed, bunting ability and underrated power. She is tied with Katie Burrelli on the team with two home runs.
Following the team motto of one through nine, which means every player in the lineup is capable of delivering with a big hit or big play, every batter on the team can’t be taken for granted.
In the middle of the order, Marissa DeMatteo brings big power potential, leading the team in triples with eight. She carries with her a .527 batting average.
Burrelli is coming off a big game against Southern Huntingdon, going 2 for 4 with a double and two RBIs.
After a year of talk and games to prove they belong again, there is only one thing left for Neshannock to do — play the game.
“There’s not much more I can say, at least nothing I haven’t covered before,” Kimmel said. “We have to go out and play and see what happens.”