STATE COLLEGE —
(Watch highlights from the title game on video screen that appears at the bottom of the story. To view a photo gallery, click on the link at right or CLICK HERE.)
Even the slightest hesitation could have spelled doom for Madison Altmyer.
The Neshannock High sophomore was on third base with one out and the game tied at 3 in the bottom of the eighth inning yesterday at the PIAA Class AA softball championship game. She inched toward home plate as Warrior Run’s star pitcher, Taylor Parker, made her delivery. Fans from both sides appeared shocked when the ball soared over the catcher’s head — but not Altmyer.
She was ready. There was no pause, no delayed reaction. She might not even have blinked as the wild pitch hit the backstop behind home plate. She just went for it.
“No hesitation,” Altmyer said. “I figured it was a now-or-never situation.”
It was both, actually. The time was now for Neshannock to accomplish something it never had before.
Altmyer slid into home plate just in front of the tag by Warrior Run catcher Lynn Vermilya, sending the Lady Lancers into a frenzy as they claimed their first state championship in school history, 4-3, at Penn State University’s Nittany Lion Softball Park.
“It feels like a dream,” Neshannock senior pitcher Amanda Furst said. “This is weird — so exciting.”
Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel raised both arms in the air as the umpire called Altmyer safe — and he breathed a deep sigh of relief. The win marked the second extra-inning victory of the state playoffs for the Lady Lancers and third win in their final at-bat.
The defining victory meant a lot to the 14-year veteran coach, who tried to contain his excitement after another wild win.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, but this is the first title our teams have ever won,” he said. “You never know if you’re going to get to this point. And I’m not getting any younger, so I’m glad they got it now.
“It’s great. You wonder if this opportunity is ever going to come about, but the Lord’s been good to me. I had a heart attack a few years back, and I sort of regrouped. But this is just a great feeling. I’m really happy for the girls.”
Altmyer made sure such euphoria happened.
She tripled to start the eighth inning, yanking a ball deep down the right-field line. It sailed over the right-fielder’s head and rolled to the wall. Her run was the first one scored by either team since the third inning, as both pitchers settled in after a rough start.
TAKING THE LEAD
The Lady Lancers (24-1) took an early 2-0 lead in the first inning when Madison Shaffer followed up a bunt single by Rayanna Furst by slapping a shot down the left-field line. The ball skipped over third base, and Warrior Run’s left fielder misplayed the ball, allowing Furst and Shaffer to come all the way around to score.
“It was a nice pitch,” Shaffer said. “It was on the outside corner, so I just went with it. When I was rounding second base, I looked at my coach and he just said ‘Go, go, go!’ ”
The lead didn’t last long, as the Lady Defenders (24-3) tied the game in the top of second. They loaded the bases on three straight singles and scored their first run on an illegal pitch by Amanda Furst, who the umpire said didn’t separate her hands while stepping off the rubber, allowing the runners to move up a base. Warrior Run then tied it on an RBI groundout to the first baseman. The Lady Lancers escaped further damage as Amanda Furst struck out the next two batters.
“(Amanda) was able to settle in and really focus on what she was doing out there,” Kimmel said. “This was a pretty good hitting team. They hit the ball well, but it’s a testament to her (that she was able to work out of trouble). She doesn’t let much bother her, and you gotta have that type of temperament as a pitcher.”
FURSTS MAKE THEIR MARK
Amanda Furst gave up three earned runs on nine hits, one walk and a hit batsman. She struck out two.
The only players to have much success against her were Parker and clean-up hitter Jackie Clemens. They helped Warrior Run take a 3-2 lead in the top of the third inning on back-to-back doubles. Neshannock center fielder Rayanna Furst, Amanda's sister, nearly made a spectacular play on Clemens’ shot to left-center, but she came up inches short and Parker scored from second.
Yet Neshannock responded again in the bottom of the inning. Rayanna Furst, who led the Lady Lancers by going 3 for 4 with two runs scored, reached on an infield single. She moved to second on a ground out and scored when Warrior Run’s shortstop overran Marissa DeMatteo’s bunt single, allowing the ball to trickle into the outfield grass. DeMatteo and Rayanna Furst had five of Neshannock’s eight hits. Their speed, along with the Lady Lancers’ overall quickness, gave Warrior Run problems throughout the game.
“They put the ball down effectively, and with their speed, you’ve got to field it and get the ball to first in a hurry,” Lady Defenders coach Garth Walters said. “With girls on, everybody’s got a job to do, and you’ve got to make sure you’re there because if there’s any miscue, they’re going to score.”
The game remained tied for the next four-and-a-half innings. Parker worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, striking out two and catching a line drive hit right at her — a play she made several times throughout the game. Parker also was a problem at the plate, where she went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a run scored. She singled in the fifth and stole second, but Furst was able to work out of the jam. The inning could have been extended if not for a spectacular play by shortstop Jamie Graziani and first baseman Madison Shaffer.
The leadoff batter hit a slow roller to Graziani, who charged the ball, gloved it and threw to first on the run. Shaffer did a complete split to make a highlight-reel scoop and keep her foot on the bag, narrowly beating the runner.
“I took dance for about 10 years, and then I quit to play softball,” said Fischer, who added that she’s made that play other times during the season. “I always make sure I point my toe to keep my foot on the bag. It’s another dancer thing. That’s kind of my secret weapon. It’s probably one of my favorite things to do. It makes me feel pretty good.”
The only other threat came in the top of the seventh, when Parker hit a two-out double down the left-field line. Amanda Furst was able to get Clemens to hit a weak grounder to first to end the inning. The Lady Lancers went 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the inning and worked around a single in the top of the eighth, setting the stage for Altmyer’s heroics.
THE WINNING RUN
The left-hander turned on an inside pitch from Parker and pulled it to deep left field. The pitch was one of very few that Neshannock was able to pull off the hard-throwing Parker. A bunt attempt by Alexandra Fischer wasn’t enough to bring Altmyer home, but the next pitch to Katie Burrelli went well over the catcher’s head — the only wild pitch for Parker on the day.
The ball bounced off the padding near the backstop and went right back to Vermilya, the catcher, who tried to beat Altmyer to the plate instead of tossing it to the pitcher.
“I thought she was going to throw the ball to the pitcher,” Kimmel said. “She might have had a better shot. But that pitcher gave no indication that she was going to throw one wild. She had been around the plate all day. As soon as I saw it go over her head, I knew we could score because it’s a long distance to the backstop.”
The game was well played by both teams, with just one error between the two. Both pitchers had solid outings, and there was very little controversy on any calls, including the final play at the plate.
“Close games usually come down to a mistake — either a big hit or a mistake,” Kimmel said. “Today, we got both.”
A state title came along with it.
(To watch our original inning-by-inning recap, CLICK HERE.)