BELLEFONTE — Vanessa Cooper is undoubtedly the vocal leader of the Bellefonte Lady Raiders softball team.
For nearly seven full innings, the junior’s voice barked out fielding assignments, shouted encouraging words to batters and quieted just enough to shepherd her young pitcher through late trouble.
However, when plays had to be made on Tuesday, Cooper’s bat did the talking with a walk-off home run to give Bellefonte a 2-1 victory over Penns Valley.
“The best part of the team is that we persevere through things and Vanessa is a big part of that,” said Bellefonte coach Gregg Kohlhepp.
“She’s a star and we love having her on this team, but she knows she can’t do it alone. It takes eight, nine, 10 girls to have her back.”
Cooper certainly had help.
The Lady Raiders (5-4) received a few game changing plays from others to set the stage for Cooper.
Penns Valley (3-5) controlled the game early behind a strong start from Maggie Lynch. The senior didn’t allow a hit until Alicia Allen singled in the third.
Morgan Royer put the Lady Rams in front with a sacrifice fly to left field that scored Courtney Ironside in the second.
With Lynch pitching well early, it seemed missed opportunities would foil Bellefonte. However, Taylore Maurer would eventually come through late for the Lady Raiders.
When Allen singled in the third and then stole second base, Cooper (2-for-3) stepped to the plate after Erin Pugh lined out to first.
With first base unoccupied, Lynch intentionally walked Cooper and then escaped when Jordan Rockey grounded out to second.
In the fourth, Maurer came up with runners at the corners and two outs, with Cooper shouting in the background.
“I know you can do it Taylore Maurer,” Cooper screamed. “I know you can do it!”
Maurer, a freshman, hit a tough grounder back up the box that Lynch handled adeptly and fired to first to end the threat.
When she got another chance in the sixth with two runners on and two outs, Maurer drilled an RBI single to center that scored Carly Chambers from second and tied the game at one.
“I have to give it to all these girls, but Taylore has been working so hard,” Cooper said. “She’s our freshman starter and I’m so proud of her.”
“Sometimes these younger girls get a little discouraged and I just wanted to let her know that if you mess up, I’m still here for you and I got you no matter what happens.”
In the seventh, it was Cooper’s time to respond.
When Nicole Harbaugh (1-for-2) fisted a single into center off Bellefonte starter Stevi Confer (5-3), Cooper went out to meet with the sophomore.
The usually boisterous catcher was subdued as the two chatted.
“She just wanted to make sure that I was calm and that I trusted my mechanics,” Confer said.
“(Cooper) really picks you up when you’re out in the outfield, infield or pitching. It doesn’t matter where you are. She picks you up and makes you want to work harder for her and for everyone else.”
Cooper’s chatter may inspire her teammates, but in the seventh it was her play that mattered most.
With Harbaugh at first, Penns Valley tried a sacrifice bunt. However, when the bunt popped briefly into the air, Cooper dove head first, bobbling but then securing the ball for out No. 2.
Then when Ashley Struble (2-for-3) strode to the plate and smashed a ball deep to left center, it seemed the Rams would score the go-ahead run.
Instead, Cooper directed the relay to second where Erica DeVinney caught the throw from Allen and tagged Struble seconds before Harbaugh could score.
“It’s a different game going into the bottom of the seventh tied up versus down a run,” Kohlhepp said. “She made a nice call to get the ball into second and (Allen) listened.”
The stage was then set for Cooper, who drove a ball deep to left center that would have easily cleared Bellefonte’s fence in left if it extended to center.
“(Lynch) is a great pitcher,” Cooper said. “She was jamming me inside earlier and I was just a little anxious…”
“I got (that one) in my groove and she’s not going to through that ball again,” Cooper said with a smile.
The sound off the bat and Cooper’s determination out of the box predicted trouble for Penns Valley.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Cooper said to herself just before the at bat.
The relay was timely, but the cutoff was bobbled. Cooper didn’t care. She was heading home no matter what.
“They call me speed buggy for a reason,” she chuckled. “There was no one stopping me. I was tackling the catcher. I was getting home.”