SLIPPERY ROCK — Laurel High's softball team set out three goals this season.
The quest for the third checkmark — and the Lady Spartans' historic season — ended Friday afternoon in a back-and-forth, 7-6 loss to District 9-champion Cranberry in a PIAA Class 2A quarterfinal-round game played at Slippery Rock University. Laurel won its section and the WPIAL championship for the second straight season. The last goal for the program, which won its first state-playoff game on Monday, was the state championship.
“We had that third goal," Laurel coach Frank Duddy said. "We didn’t quite get there. We achieved the other two and they can be proud in that. Hopefully the underclassmen have a bitter taste in their mouth and we’ll come back next year and make it happen if we can get there. We have a lot of talent. We have a lot of returning talent. We should be fine."
Laurel (21-3), which had used its potent offense to play with a lead most of the season, fell behind early and had the winning run at second base in the bottom of the seventh inning, but Cranberry (15-5) pitcher Andrea Watson forced Alyssa Miller into a game-ending groundout. Cranberry advances to the state semifinals against Frazier on Monday at a time and site to be determined.
"We’re not going to roll over for anybody," Duddy said. "We don’t give up. We haven’t given up this year. Like I said, just proud of them and proud of the effort they put out there. A little disappointed at the outcome, but at the end of the day it’s a hell of a year. It was a nice ride."
Laurel won the WPIAL title last year but came out slow in its first state playoff game and quickly exited the tournament. This year, it was a different mentality.
"Last year, we went down and we didn’t fight," Duddy said. "We rolled over. This year, we fought. We won a game, we lost a game. We didn’t go down easy. We went down because they bested us today. If they play that game 10 times, we may go 5-5. That’s a good team over there. We build on this. We build on past experiences. We’ve been there now. There’s no excuses. Our goal is going to be to get back where we were. One more game than last year.”
After Cranberry scored the game's first run in the second inning, Laurel's bats woke up in a big way. No. 9 hitter Alyssa Miller started things off with a bloop single to left field and then leadoff hitter Olivia Lombardo reached on an error. Two batters later, Mackenzie Latess took Andrea Watson's pitch deep to center field for a three-run blast, her third home run in the last three games to take a 3-1 lead. Latess was 4 for 4 in her final high school game, while also adding a double and two runs scored.
"It’s a shame we had to depend on it," Duddy said. "She’s a leader. She leads by example. She goes out and she hits it and it seems like we got a little bit of a burst out of that. We get a little bit of adrenaline rush when the top of our order gets it going."
Cleanup hitter Kayla Ruperto drove the next pitch to center for a double and came home on Kaylee Withrow's RBI-single.
“They have every reason to hang their heads and pack it in, but they didn’t," Cranberry coach Glenn Barcinas said. "That shows their resolve and their fight in not giving up.”
Cranberry stormed back in the top of the sixth, tagging Ruperto (three strikeouts, two walks, 10 hits) for four runs in the frame to retake the lead at 5-4. In the bottom of the inning, it was Laurel's turn to strike back. However, after the Lady Spartans placed runners on the corners with no outs, the threat was canceled when a Lady Spartans runner was picked off third base and Watson (four strikeouts, two walks, 11 hits) forced a groundout to end the inning and preserve the lead.
Miscues followed Laurel to the field in the top of the seventh. A single followed by a Laurel fielding error set the stage for Cranberry's Emily Duncan to rip a two-run double to the outfield to add two important insurance runs.
Down 7-4 in the bottom of the seventh, Latess and Ruperto put themselves in scoring position for Frankilyn Duddy to hit a two-run, two-out double to the outfield. Allie Andre then drew a walk, putting two on with two outs. But Watson got Miller to ground out to the shortstop to end the game.
The win capped a week in which Cranberry won its first two state playoff games in program history.
“We are in uncharted waters," Barcinas said. "We don’t know any better than to go out and play our game and it’s kind of exciting."
Laurel will lose the first four batters in its lineup — Lombardo, Brooke Atkins, Latess and Ruperto — to graduation. Duddy told his team after the game he was proud of their accomplishments.
"They had a hell of a season," Duddy said. "They’ve gone where no Laurel softball team has gone before. 21-3 is nothing to sneeze at. We came up a little short today, but I still know that’s a hell of a ball team. That ball team did a lot of good stuff this year and I’m just proud as hell of them.”