NEW CASTLE —
The Neshannock High softball team did it again yesterday.
This time, the Lady Lancers had to overcome a feisty South Side Beaver squad as well as a determined Mother Nature.
Neshannock used a strong hitting attack mixed with a solid pitching performance from Madison Shaffer to capture the program’s second-straight WPIAL Class A championship.
The Lady Lancers banged out 13 hits and Shaffer struck out eight batters en route to an 8-5 win over South Side Beaver at California University of Pennsylvania’s Lilley Field. The game started in a light drizzle and eventually was delayed for 85 minutes in the top of the fifth inning because of two consecutive heavy downpours.
It’s also the third time Neshannock has knocked off the Lady Rams this season. The previous two encounters came in Section 4 action.
“We enjoy it,” Lady Lancers coach Tracy Kimmel said of the championship. “This is what the girls have worked hard for.”
Top-seeded Neshannock (16-2) is ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class A by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Lady Lancers will face Smethport, the No. 2 seed out of District 9. Smethport lost to Dubois Central Catholic, 4-0, yesterday, in the district title tilt.
The state playoffs will open Monday at a time and site to be determined by the PIAA.
It was the third time Neshannock knocked off the Lady Rams (16-4) this year. The two previous times came in Section 4 action. South Side Beaver, which was making its first appearance in the district championship game in school history, will oppose Iroquois, the District 10 champion.
All nine Neshannock hitters reached base safely. Eight of which did so with at least one hit. Gina Zingaro went hitless in three at-bats but she reached on a fifth-inning walk. The Lady Rams committed four errors as well.
“We pride ourselves on hitting all through the order,” Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel said. “I don’t think we have a bottom of the order.
“I don’t really worry about the errors from the other team. If they happen, they happen. We just try to hit the ball and move runners.”
Neshannock broke a scoreless deadlock in the top of the second with a pair of runs. Marissa Kirkwood reached with a one-out single and took second when Kaela Zingaro reached on an error by shortstop Hunter Hand. Hand wasn’t on the base when she was trying to force out Kirkwood and everyone was safe.
Jenna DeLuca, who led Neshannock with three hits and a trio of RBIs, delivered a single that went through Hand’s legs, allowing Kirkwood to score the game’s first run. The ball went into center field and centerfielder Cheyenne Seik threw the ball over the catcher Capri Sollinger-Knisley’s head, permitting Zingaro to scamper home with the second run.
“Hitting the ball was awesome today, one through nine,” Kirkwood said. “We got the job done. No matter who went up to the plate, I knew something big would happen.
“Jenna has been hitting the ball really well for us and she did it again today.”
Madison Altmyer’s groundout in the third inning lifted the Lady Lancers to a 3-0 margin. Alexandra Fischer opened the frame with a double off South Side Beaver starter McKenna Smith and took third on a wild pitch with Altmyer batting.
“It’s important to get the lead and keep building on it,” Altmyer said. “You have to win every inning to win the game and that’s what we try to focus on.”
The Lady Lancers had an other immediate opportunity to add on in the top of the fourth. Neshannock loaded the bases with one out. Shaffer came up and laced a liner at first baseman Connor McGaffic, who snagged the hot shot and stepped on first to complete the double play to escape damage.
“Stuff like that happens in the game, you just have to roll with it,” Shaffer said.
Said Kimmel, “That’s a big out there. That’s a big deal. We weren’t deflated though.”
South Side Beaver fed off the emotion, storming back in the bottom of the fourth to knot the count at 3. The Lady Rams tied the game on a double-steal attempt.
Shaffer didn’t have the ball in the circle to freeze the action. McGaffic, who has verbally committed to continue her softball career at Pitt, took advantage by breaking for the plate. She snuck in around the tag by Kirkwood for the tying tally, but Kirkwood alertly gunned down Antonia Yacoviello at second for the second out.
“We didn’t handle that very well,” Kimmel said of the double steal. “Those things can happen, you’re on a big stage.”
Neshannock took control for good in the top of the fifth, sending nine batters to the plate and scoring five runs for an 8-3 lead. The Lady Lancers tallied a marker on Kirkwood’s RBI single with one out.
Then with two outs and a 1-0 count on DeLuca, the rain came down in buckets. The umpires cleared the field and the teams sat through an 85-minute delay.
Play finally resumed and DeLuca notched an RBI single for a 5-3 lead and Marissa DeMatteo delivered a two-run double for a 7-3 advantage. Cassidy Burrelli punctuated the inning with a run-producing single for an 8-3 buffer.
“There was a lot of pressure on this team and I think everyone knows that,” Burrelli said. “We handled the pressure well and it showed. We know what we have to do to get it done.”
The Lady Rams managed to tack on two runs and threaten for even more in the bottom of the fifth. Shaffer, though returned the favor and helped Neshannock escape the bases-loaded threat by striking out Lacey Weible to end the inning.
“When a team leaves the bases loaded, it lets you know that if you can do something like that in a game like this, you can get through anything,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer (13-1) scattered seven hits and allowed two earned runs with eight hits. She walked six, but many of them were pitching around hitters — in particular McGaffic — who came in with 13 home runs on the season. Two of those dingers came off Shaffer, one at home and another on the road.
“I thought she pitched good today,” Kimmel said. “She made some good pitches.
“We worked around McGaffic pretty good. We did give her a couple of chances and she sawed her off. She really didn’t get anything (good to hit).”
“She’s one of those players that as a pitcher you have to swallow your pride and understand wherever you put it there’s a good chance it’s either going to go over (the fence) or at least be a hit,” Shaffer said. “You have to work around that.”
Shaffer capped the championship win off with a swinging strikeout of Yacoviello and the celebration began on the infield.
DeMatteo, Fischer and Kirkwood added two hits each for Neshannock. DeMatteo knocked in a pair of runs.
“It’s definitely difficult to beat a team three times,” Fischer said. “It’s such a good accomplishment when you can beat a team three times. Especially against a team with the capabilities that they have.”
Smith (7-1) suffered the loss. She went the distance, giving up 13 hits and seven earned runs with four walks and two strikeouts.
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***In today’s digital edition ...
•How did the Neshannock girls handle the long rain delay? They threw a dance party.
•Pitcher Madison Shaffer and catcher Marissa Kirkwood are quite a tandem.