Kayla Ruperto

Laurel's Kayla Ruperto throws a pitch during a PIAA Class 2A playoff game against Wilmington at North Allegheny High School.

WEXFORD — On its quest to accomplish its last team goal for the season, Laurel may have passed one of its biggest tests along the way.

A year after coming out sluggishly and falling in its first state playoff game, the WPIAL champion Lady Spartans shook off a slow start and used a big third inning to dispatch District 10 runner-up Wilmington, 5-3, in a PIAA Class 2A playoff game Monday at North Allegheny.

They did what they had to do to get the ‘W,’ “ Laurel coach Frank Duddy said. “A couple of home runs helped. Kayla in the circle, she always does a nice job for us. We did what we had to do. I’m looking at this as our over-the-hump game. We got this one out of the way. In the back of their minds, they were still thinking this is where we blew it last year. I felt like I started to see a little bit of that come in.”

The win moves Laurel (21-2) into the state quarterfinals against District 9 champion Cranberry, 10-1 winners over Freedom, on Thursday at a time and place to be determined.

“We’re going to get back to work (today), back to work Wednesday and then have at it on Thursday,” Duddy said. “We’re still working on goal No. 3.”

After falling victim to the so-called “WPIAL hangover” last spring, Laurel was motivated to not let history repeat itself this year. The Lady Spartans were again playing an opening-round game at North Allegheny against a District 10 runner-up coming off a lopsided loss.

“We concentrated on that,” Duddy said. “I think we still had a little hangover. In the pregame, in the warmups I thought we were ready to go.”

However, right out of the gate, Wilmington (11-9) leadoff hitter Remington Koi roped a fly ball to center field which was dropped for an error. With Koi on third, Amber Siegfried then reached on a bunt. Taylor Dlugozima, the third batter, hit a line drive to the outfield to score Koi and the Lady Greyhounds took a quick 1-0 lead.

Duddy said his team may have had a case of the jitters early on.

“It was almost like we were playing not to lose instead of playing to win,” Duddy said. “Like I said, a lot of credit to (Wilmington). They came to play ball and made plays. They did a nice job. It was a good ballgame.”

That hot start was one of the points of emphasis for Wilmington, which fell 15-0 earlier this season against Laurel.

“We talked about it all week,” Wilmington coach John Frank said. “Come out and put one on and keep trying to grind from there. That was one of the plans — don’t sit back, let’s be aggressive and come at them.”

Wilmington’s potent top of the order responded as Kayla Ruperto drove in leadoff hitter Olivia Lombardo to quickly even the score in the bottom half of the inning. Wilmington scored when another dropped fly ball in the Laurel outfield — which would have been the third out — led to the Lady Greyhounds retaking the lead at 2-1 in the top of the third.

Trailing by a run, the Lady Spartans again responded when Lombardo and Brooke Atkins both reached. Mackenzie Latess drove in Lombardo with a sacrifice fly to tie the game at 2-2. Ruperto, the cleanup batter, then took Koi (five strikeouts, two walks, six hits) deep for a 4-2 lead. Ruperto was 2 for 3 with three RBIs on the day. Latess added an insurance run in the fifth, homering to up Laurel’s lead to 5-2. It’s the second straight game Ruperto and Latess each hit roundtrippers.

“They’ve been doing that all year for us,” Duddy said. “They’re clutch. They see it and hit it and hit it hard.”

Wilmington tried to strike back in the sixth as Meadow Whiting sent a Ruperto pitch over the outfield wall to get closer at 5-3, but Ruperto struck out Siegfried to end the inning. It was the last baserunner for the Lady Greyhounds on the afternoon, as Ruperto sat down the Wilmington side in the seventh to seal the win.

“They didn’t come to roll over,” Duddy said. “They came to play ball. It was a completely different team than we saw when we played them back in April. I saw a lot more confidence. They believed. Good for coach Frank. He got them up for this game.”

For Wilmington, it’s two straight seasons in the PIAA playoffs despite its youthful roster.

“Hopefully people take note that two years now, Wilmington softball is back on the map,” Frank said. “I’m happy, not that we lost, but happy that we played a great game today against a great team from home all the way down away from our fans. If we would have been close to home, this place would have been sold out.”

psirianni@ncnewsonline.com

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