UNIVERSITY PARK — Pitching in a District 6 title game is a pretty big spot for a freshman.
Bellefonte’s Tara Baney admits she had a few butterflies before taking the circle against Johnstown in the Class AAA championship game Wednesday at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
“I was really, really nervous, but you’ve just got to go with your heart,” said Baney.
Baney came through like a seasoned veteran. She held Johnstown to two hits through six innings and finished with a four-hitter as the Lady Red Raiders rolled to a 7-2 victory.
Erin Pugh drove in three runs for second-seeded Bellefonte (13-8), which advances to play the District 7 champion Monday in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs.
“Phenomenal,” was how Bellefonte catcher Vanessa Cooper described Baney’s no-walk, five-strikeout performance. “Coming in an atmosphere like this and not having any experience, I was blown away. She was throwing so hard. She never gave up, never slowed her arm down.”
Baney held top-seeded Johnstown (11-5) hitless through the first three innings before giving up an inside-the-park homer to Shaylah Merriman in the fourth. She allowed Bellefonte to take advantage of five errors to build a 7-1 lead before surrendering two hits and a run in the seventh.
“I think I threw pretty well,” said the tall right-hander. “I had my ups and downs, but you’ve just got to push through.”
“I thought she threw great,” said Bellefonte coach Gregg Kohlhepp, who was prepared to use his entire complement of pitchers in the clash. “We had all three kids ready to go, but it was the case that she was handling the lineup very well and we didn’t need to make a change.”
Bellefonte pounded out 11 hits in the contest, but Johnstown booted five balls over the final three innings to play a part in five Lady Raider runs.
“When you look at the scoreboard, we had more errors than hits,” said Lady Trojans coach Randy Romesberg, who started four freshmen and three sophomores. “We hit some ‘at-em’ balls, some line drives that they caught. Our defense didn’t show up today. Usually, we’re good defensively. We pride ourselves on defense. Today it wasn’t there.
“That’s the story of the game. We gave them a lot of unearned runs.”
Bellefonte led from start to finish, scoring a run in the first as Pugh blooped a two-out single over the pitcher’s head and in front of the second baseman.
“My approach was to hit it hard,” Pugh said. “Things happen. I didn’t hit it that hard, but I pulled through for us.”
The Lady Raiders extended the lead to 2-0 in a bizarre fourth. Stevi Confer led off with a double and raced home on Sarah Menna’s RBI single. Liz Linn followed with a double and was on her way to third, but Kohlhepp put the brakes on Menna. Linn was tagged out between second and third and Menna was caught at the plate.
Merriman lined a ball to right that a diving Linn just missed and it rolled all of the way to the fence for the homer. Johnstown would get no closer than 2-1.
Bellefonte got two back in the fifth as the Lady Trojans’ fielding started to crumble.
“We tried to put some pressure on them early and ran ourselves out of innings,” Kohlhepp said. “They made plays, but we kept the pressure on them and we were able to crack through.”
Jenna Ault singled to open the fifth. On Angela Capparelle’s sacrifice bunt, the Johnstown second baseman was late to cover first and pitcher Lexi Lindrose threw wild into right field. With runners at second and third, Olivia Ripka plated Ault with a groundout.
Cooper got the second run home without swinging the bat. As the Lady Trojans were attempting to intentionally walk the dangerous Cooper, their catcher stepped outside the catcher’s box to receive ball four. The result was an illegal pitch, allowing Capparelle to come home from third.
Cooper said the umpire was right on top of the play. “I thanked him for it,” the senior catcher said. “He was doing me a favor.”
The Lady Raiders added a run on an error in the sixth. Another error set the table for Pugh, who lined a two-run single to left in the seventh.
“We moved her up in the lineup which you wouldn’t think looking at her batting average and where it’s been going,” Kohlhepp said of Pugh, who batted fifth. “She’s had great at-bats. It doesn’t reflect statistically. She battles. She’s not an easy out.”
Pugh, Confer and Menna paced the Lady Red Raiders with two hits each.
Bellefonte won its 13th district title in the last 15 seasons after falling to Hollidaysburg in last season’s title game.
“I did miss it last year,” Cooper said of the medal hanging around her neck. “And from that last game, we’ve been working hard. All we’ve been talking about at practice is that we want to be ring chasers. Now, we’re at it.”
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt.