New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
The hits just keep coming for the Neshannock High softball team — and at just the right time.
The Lady Lancers collected 14 hits en route to a 9-1 victory over Elk County Catholic in the opening round of the PIAA Class A playoffs at Hampton High School yesterday.
Neshannock (19-2) accumulated 16 hits in its previous game, a 10-4 win over Carmichaels last week to claim the WPIAL crown.
This time, a district title wasn’t on the line. Nevertheless, the result moves the Lady Lancers into the next round. A quarterfinal-round matchup against Claysburg-Kimmel is set for Thursday at a time and site to be determined.
“It’s a good first step. That’s exactly what we told them,” Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel said. “We just won a ballgame. We didn’t really win anything overall here. You have to win that first one and keep going, keep playing. It was a good win. We’re hitting the ball pretty well right now. If we can keep that up, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Lady Lancers set the tone early with pitcher Madison Shaffer shutting down the Lady Crusaders (17-7) in order to start the game. Neshannock cranked out four runs on five hits in the bottom half of the inning to jump out to a 4-0 lead.
Back-to-back triples by Alexandra Fischer and Shaffer capped off the effort with Fischer driving in two runners and Shaffer knocking in one.
“That’s what we preached to them all along here,” Kimmel said. “We want to get the jump on these teams, make them chase us. It puts more and more pressure on these other teams. That’s what we want to do. Regardless of whether we’re the visiting team or the home team, we want to put runs up right away and put pressure on them.”
The triple by Fischer was the first of three straight by the left-hander, who crushed balls over the heads of Elk County Catholic outfielders to the 225-foot fence that surrounds the field at Hampton.
“She’s locked in. She’s been locked in for the last couple of weeks in practice and everywhere in the games,” Kimmel said. “It’s what we’ve been looking for out of her. She hit those off-speed pitches and she hit them well. That’s a sign when you’re locked in.”
Fischer finished the game 3 for 3 with three triples, three RBIs, three runs scored and a walk.
“I’ve been seeing the ball really well lately, inside pitches and even outside pitches,” she said. “I just try to keep my confidence in there, not get down or anything and just focus on what needs to be done. I was just really zoned into the ball.”
Fischer came in to score after all three of her triples on hits by Shaffer. Along with her first-inning triple, Shaffer roped a double to score Fischer in the third and knocked her in again with a single in the fifth.
“You look at our six, seven, eight and nine hitters, it’s pretty hard to get through those kids,” Kimmel said. “It’s really hard to get through that part of the order.”
The top of the order produced just as well with leadoff hitter Rayanna Furst contributing three hits. She was 3 for 4 with a double.
Katie Burrelli and Marissa DeMatteo slapped two hits apiece. Burrelli sent awes through the bleachers with a shot to deep center field that clanked off the top of the wall for a double in the fifth. She would come around to score on Fischer’s second triple of the game a batter later.
DeMatteo was 2 for 4, both singles, and knocked in the first run of the game for Neshannock in the first.
After breezing through the first inning from the pitching circle, Shaffer (19-2) struggled to find the plate in the middle innings. In the second, she walked three straight batters in a 31-pitch inning to give the Lady Crusaders their only run of the game. The three walks came after two outs and a double by Elk County Catholic’s Carly Schneider.
“With pitching, an important part is just getting in a groove and comfortable,” Shaffer said. “The first inning I was all right. The second inning, my mechanics were going off and obviously, it showed. I had way more walks than I would have liked to. Toward the end, I tried to focus more and settle down.”
Superb defense backed up Shaffer in the fourth and fifth innings. After issuing a leadoff walk to Rachel Walker, a bunt attempt by McKenzie Neureiter was scooped up by Lady Lancers third baseman Madison Altmyer. The fielder threw to second baseman DeMatteo, who was covering first. Realizing Walker was leaning off the bag after advancing to second on the play, DeMatteo tossed to shortstop Jamie Graziani, who tagged Walker to record a less-than-conventional 5-4-6 double play.
“That’s what’s great about being a pitcher for this team. If you’re off, the defense is on. If you’re on, your defense is still on. It provides a sense of security that it’s OK, your team’s still there and you can trust your team members.”
In the fifth, Neshannock catcher Marissa Kirkwood, who was 1 for 2 with a double from the plate, gunned down the Lady Crusaders’ Jessie Ginther on a steal attempt after a leadoff single. That play was followed by slick glove work by Graziani and Altmyer on consecutive groundballs to end the inning.
CLOSING IT OUT
Shaffer returned to form in the sixth and seventh, retiring the side in order in both innings. When the ace is on, she’s nearly impossible to beat. She proved that by closing out the final two frames on just 17 pitches, including two strikeouts.
Shaffer allowed four hits, one earned run, walked six and struck out six in the complete-game win.
“The last two innings, it looked like the real deal there. She was even throwing harder,” Kimmel said. “I thought a couple of times she was probably trying to aim the ball instead of letting it go. There again, that’s youth, too.”
Now three wins away from the ultimate goal, the Lady Lancers are confident they have what it takes to pull off the repeat.
“It’s really exciting,” Fischer said. “I hope we can make our run like we did last year. We were very prepared and everything.”
(To view Erica Galvin’s photo gallery from the game, CLICK HERE.)