SPRING MILLS — Penns Valley’s Ashley Struble ended the game the way she started it — with a long home run.
And with it, she ended the Lady Rams’ 0-6 skid to start to the softball season.
Struble blasted a one-out homer in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift Penns Valley to a 4-3 triumph over Centre County rival Bellefonte on Tuesday afternoon.
The no-doubter to deep left-center capped a huge day at the plate for the Lady Ram senior. Struble led off the game with a homer, doubled and scored the tying run in the sixth and reached base in all five of her plate appearances.
But it was her final at-bat that sent the Penns Valley fans and her teammates home happy.
Bellefonte reliever Stevi Confer had pitched 2 1/3 hitless innings before Struble stepped to the plate. Struble pounded a pitch up in the strike zone, sending it long over Bellefonte center fielder Angela Capparelle’s head and the fence in left-center field.
Struble had a pretty good feeling where the ball would land.
“I generally do know when it’s going,” said the four-year starter. “It was a pretty solid hit. I had an idea it was going, but once I heard my team I knew it was gone.”
Struble insists she wasn’t trying to end the game with one swing. She had never hit two homers in a game before Tuesday.
“You can’t think of another home run when you’re going up to bat,” she said. “You’ve got to think base hit and hope that the girls behind you will do their jobs as well.”
While Struble wasn’t thinking longball, Penns Valley coach Don Lucas had other thoughts.
“I’m willing her to take it out,” he said. “She’s such a good hitter. She’s one of those gals that when she’s up I just take for granted that she’s going to get a hit because she has such a presence about her at the plate. She is just full of confidence.”
Bellefonte coach Gregg Kohlhepp said the Lady Red Raiders were trying to be careful with Struble.
“We were trying to nibble on corners and not throw anything too fat that she could get ahold of,” Kohlhepp said. “... She’s a tough kid and if you’re off by inches she can make you pay for it. We’ve certainly seen that from her over the last four years. She is a great hitter.”
Struble has been a terror at the plate so far this season and delivering big power numbers. She now has three home runs and a slew of extra base hits.
The numbers are remarkable considering she’s returning after suffering a tear of the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee late in the basketball season.
She said the injury may have actually helped her, even though she missed more than two weeks of practice and could not take batting practice during that period,
“I worked really hard to get back,” said Struble, who must play with a brace. “I did a lot of leg strengthening which I think really helped to get my swing more powerful.”
Lucas said that if anyone could return from the injury it was Struble. He pointed to her toughness this season when she took a ground ball to the face against Bald Eagle Area, got three stitches and returned the next day to go 3-for-4 with a home run against Clearfield.
“There’s not a lot of kids that could do that,” he said. “She is one of those ones you hate to see go. She is one of those ones that don’t come along very often.”
Struble gave the Lady Rams a quick 1-0 lead, launching the second pitch from Rachel Bernier deep down the left-field line for a home run.
“It was an inside pitch and I just took it where it was pitched,” Struble said. “That’s what you have to do with the ball. They told me it cleared the fence by pretty far, but it was barely fair. It made me a little nervous.”
Penns Valley eventually loaded the bases with no outs in the inning, but did not score as Bellefonte reliever Tara Baney got out of the jam. Baney got out of a bases-loaded, no-out predicament in the second inning and allowed just one run after the Lady Rams loaded the bases with one out in the fourth.
“My gracious, we had so many opportunities to blow this open,” Lucas said. “... After we left all of those runners on, that usually comes back to bite you.”
“You’re feeling like this is our day if we can stay close to them,” Kohlhepp said of emerging from those innings nearly unscathed. “We can hit the ball and we can do some damage. Give big credit to our defense and our pitchers. We made some big plays to keep them off the board.”
But Kohlhepp’s squad also suffered a similar fate. Both teams left 11 runners on base.
“Obviously, a run here or there makes a big difference,” Kohlhepp said. “We just didn’t get the ball in play or get the hit we needed with runners on. A good team like Penns Valley is going to make yuou pay for that. ... We were just one swing away at times.”
Bellefonte (7-3) got even in the third as Olivia Ripka hustled around from second to score on Baney’s infield hit on a close play at the plate.
Courtney Ironside’s RBI single in the fourth put the Lady Rams in front, but Bellefonte scored twice in the fifth to regain the lead. Ripka had an RBI single and late scored on Baney’s sacrifice fly.
Penns Valley tied it in the sixth as Struble led off with a double to the centrer field fence, moved to third on a wild pitch and scored on an error.
The Lady Raiders had two on in the seventh and eighth, but reliever Harley Hess got out of both jams to set the stage for Struble’s heroics.
Baney went 3-for-3 to lead the Bellefonte offense. Liz Linn and Ripka added two hits each.
Nicole Harbaugh added two hits for the Lady Rams, who also got solid pitching efforts from starter Emma Kubalak and Hess.
The Lady Rams avenged a 12-2 loss to Bellefonte earlier this season and hope the triumph could jump-start their season.
“It’s a huge weight lifted off our shoulders,” Struble said. “We have worked so hard in practice and it’s finally paying off for us. Bellefonte is a pretty big rival for us. It feels good to beat them, especially on our home field. Hopefully, it will give us some momentum for the rest of this week and the rest of the season.”